Stressed Out Teens & Empathic Parents: What to Do When It’s Contagious?
Though we hear a lot about the effect of parents on children’s development, parenting, like other close relationships, is a reciprocal interaction — not a one-way street. Children with difficult challenges, such as executive function deficits, can tax any parent’s equilibrium. Parents of teens with such issues are often overwhelmed and under increased stress.
Repeated experiences of frustration and defeat in the context of a mounting problem can lead any parent to feel rejected, helpless and increasingly anxious. When, on top of this, there is a particularly strong empathic emotional connection or identification with the child, parents are at risk for falling into a common counterproductive parenting pattern fueled by excessive empathy, worry and guilt.
James, 16, was a good kid — well-liked by peers, teachers and other adults. He struggled at school and with homework due to intermingling executive function deficits, anxiety, and depression. Anxiety made it harder for him to think and focus, while the impact of feeling incompetent again and again generated more anxiety, dread, and depression.
James pretended he had everything under control but secretly felt stupid and ashamed. He desperately tried to escape blowing his cover using avoidance, procrastination, and cover up. At times, when agitation and panic spilled out, everyone’s instinct was to rescue him, for example, by letting him leave school to go home.
The course of this cycle of escape and inevitable crash was painfully obvious to his mom, Abby — who lived with an insidious feeling of anxiety and dread on her son’s behalf, that was uncannily similar to his own feelings. James was attached to his mom but acted irritable and rejecting when she asked him anything about his homework, yelling at her to leave him alone and accusing her of not trusting him. Though Abby was a good mom — smart, informed, and intuitive — she became increasingly cautious and tentative to avoided upsetting James — knowing how demoralized he could become.
What went wrong here?
Intuitive parents like Abby with a sensitive emotional connection to their teen can experience a vicarious visceral awareness of teens’ distress. Tuning in to teens is essential in order for parents to sense what teens are going through and for teens to feel seen. But, as in this example, empathy can go awry, functioning as a contagion effect in which parents “catch” teens’ pain and hone in on it. When this happens, parents in effect become a mirror of teens’ disabling feelings, and temporarily lose access to their own executive functions — leaving no one with sufficient distance, flexibility, perspective, or equanimity to help.
Abby was sensitively linked to James’ anxiety and dread of failure, to the point of experiencing these feelings on her own and his behalf, leading to colluding in anxious avoidance. This dynamic developed into an unhelpful pattern of cautious, overprotective parenting — a common problem afflicting parents who bear excessive anxiety and fear on their teens’ behalf, and/or their own.
The problem with over cautious, overprotective parenting:
Fearful of triggering James into feeling deflated, upset, or mad — Abby learned to tiptoe around him. Paradoxically, using kid gloves had the opposite effect — unconsciously communicating a lack of faith and validating his view of himself as weak, defective, and bad. This approach also left James’ emotions in charge and, not only gave him power he couldn’t manage, but fueled a cycle of irritability, guilt, and shame.
James mom did not speak about the truth they both knew — in an effort to protect him from feeling exposed and despondent. However, doing so perpetuated the ever-increasing burden of lies and isolation he had to bear. Further, from a skill building point of view, rescuing James by avoiding hard topics and letting him leave school when panicky, for example, rewarded avoidance by giving him instant relief. Alternatively, when escape isn’t available, it creates the space and incentive for teens to learn new strategies — if given the opportunity — breaking the cycle of avoidance.
Positive example of talking to teens about difficult things:
Abby sought help for James and parenting guidance for herself. Learning how to access a more composed frame of mind, Abby gained the ability to handle James differently and was able to rebound from times when she couldn’t .
James lied again about having handed in his research paper and other homework and his mom was on to him, as always.
Phase 1: Making a request, planning
This time, instead of asking him and pretending she believed him, she approached him and said, “James, I need 10 minutes to talk. (Time limited, manageable, neutral enough. Note that she isn’t telling him what he needs.) When can we do this?” (Respectful, considers his terms and timing.)
“Hey, I have an idea?” (If done in a positive tone authentically, this often works — encouraging curiosity. Wait to hear what he says.)
Phase 2: Setting the stage
“I want to tell you something as your mom — it’s not anything bad.” (alleviates fear).
“Can you agree to stay calm and not react…just listen and consider what I’m saying?” (Sets a manageable expectation; allows him to activate his executive functions and prepare rather than be taken by surprise and react instinctively, implies a positive expectation that he’s capable of this.)
“Afterwards, if you want to dismiss it that’s fine.” (Allows him autonomy and control, makes it more manageable.)
“Can you agree to do this? Or in some cases, use the challenge of “Do you think you can do that?” but only you think this won’t be perceived as blaming or condescending (gets his consent, making it more likely he’ll comply)
Phase 3: Delivering the message
“I’m not sure but I think (being tentative allows him to avoid a control struggle because you’re not telling him who he is) that when you feel things are too much — your natural reaction is to block them out and not think about things to get space and some peace (makes it sound understandable that he does this)
“I have the feeling that you may be in over your head right now and maybe haven’t handed stuff in (alleviates stress because the secret is out, without exposing him)
“I may be wrong (reinforces his autonomy, gives him freedom to consider it since you’re not forcing your belief on him)”
“But I’m just asking you to consider this — I don’t need you to give me an answer or anything. “
“If it were true (help him save face) I think there might be options we can think about together if you wanted to (offering to problem solve implies there are options even he doesn’t take you up on it then).
Approaching — rather than avoiding — problems using a confident, matter-of-fact, respectful demeanor and time-limited, planned approach can desensitize teens to their fear of anxiety (the cause of panic). The accumulated experience of doing this expands teens’ capacity to tolerate feelings rather than have meltdowns.
A calm and balanced emotional climate provides the backdrop teens need to stretch themselves without becoming flooded or avoidant — challenging teens within the limits of their capacity (not too little and not too much). When Abby was able to be forthright, courageous and calm while facing difficulties with James, she appealed to his higher level of functioning. Interestingly, when she did this he often succeeded in living up to these expectations.
Through their interactions Abby gave James the chance to experience himself as more capable and cooperative, as well as relieve the burden created by having to hide and cover up. Vicarious transmission of feelings in closely linked parents and teens can be a risk factor for unhealthy contagion, but can also give parents an edge in impacting teens positively when parents are able to “hold their own.”
Through staying grounded and steady, Abby was able to create a better, healthier relationship with her son — which is parents’ most important tool and teens’ most protective resource. In addition, through their connection, James’ mom also transmitted to him the tune of a more regulated state of mind.
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas that occur in families.
Margolies, L. (2018). Stressed Out Teens & Empathic Parents: What to Do When It’s Contagious?. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 7, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/stressed-out-teens-empathic-parents-what-to-do-when-its-contagious/