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March 2005
My Life Sucks Right Now
vs.
The Big Picture

by Annie Fox, M.Ed.

"Whether dealing with a missed tie-breaking field goal, a dismal SAT score, a college rejection or a broken heart, as adults our life experience enables us to see things from a broader perspective. Sharing that long view lets parents provide their kids with needed encouragement during tough times."
I remember the day in 12th grade when they posted the cast list for The Music Man. Eagerly pushing forward with the crowd I looked for my name as the lead character. I didn’t get the part. My best friend got it. I felt so disoriented that I psychically tried transforming the letters of her name into mine. Sick to my stomach and totally convinced my life was over, my psychic powers were about as effective as my ability to see The Big Picture.

Whether dealing with a missed tie-breaking field goal, a dismal SAT score, a college rejection or a broken heart, as adults our life experience enables us to see things from a broader perspective. Sharing that long view lets parents provide their kids with needed encouragement during tough times.

Four steps to helping your teen get over a major upset:

1. Encourage them to express their feelings — This needs to happen before you philosophize how “this too shall pass”. Give a kid in the throes of an upset the opportunity to vent, grieve, beat themselves up, etc. That means let them express their raw emotions first.

Expressing is good... dumping is not!

Expressing feelings is about clearing emotional clutter. We talk about our feelings so others can understand and we can de-stress — that’s a very healthy way to deal with life. A toddler screams uncontrollably because he doesn’t have the words so adults often don’t ‘get’ what the kid is upset about. That 18 month old may be thinking: “If you don’t understand what’s going on with me I’ll turn up the volume until you do.” Is that rational behavior? Maybe not, but getting your needs met is definitely pro-survival, so by screaming the kid is trying to help himself. With a 14 year old there should be a lot less screaming because she can use words and if parents are listening and patient enough to hang in and provide a safe place to talk about what’s going on then real communication can occur — heart to heart.

Dumping, on the other hand, is an outpouring of emotion with no clear goal except to complain, make others wrong (avoid responsibility for any part of what happened) and to paint oneself as a victim.

For example, your 8th grade daughter comes home from a field trip. You can’t help but notice she’s in a terrible mood. “Is something wrong?” you ask helpfully. She spends the next 15 minutes complaining about: the tour guide, the kids on the bus, the terrible lunch you gave her, her best friend who “couldn’t take a joke” when your daughter made an “innocent” comment about the friend’s hair and the fact that the boy that she’s been crushing on just asked out the class slut. She finishes it all up with “Nothing good ever happens to me!”

This is dumping, and when kids are in the middle of it they may sound desperate for help, but they don’t want help. They just want to dump. In fact, if you try to help them, they’ll turn on you.

Dumping should NEVER be encouraged. It doesn’t serve your child because dumping:

  • creates more stress
  • reinforces bad habits
  • dis-empowers by fortifying the “I’m a victim” attitude

On top of that, dumping doesn’t help your child come to terms with the disappointment or to actively work on a resolution.

A much better solution would be to say something like this, “Sounds like you’ve had a really bad day. When you’re done venting I’d love to help you sort out your feelings so you can resolve some of this. You know where to find me when you’re ready to talk.”

2. Let them know you understand — Be sympathetic. Tell your teen that you ‘hear’ and ‘understand’ how upset, disappointed, and angry she is by what happened.

Acknowledge that life isn’t fair. (Not if ‘fair’ means everyone gets dealt the same hand and is treated in the same way. Nope. It just ain’t that way.)

After your child has expressed his feelings and you’ve let him know that you understand, he’ll calm down.

3. Talk about the Big Picture. Tell your own version of the “I didn’t get the lead in The Music Man” story — everyone has at least one of those.

When you share your story make sure you talk about what you learned from your disappointment. (In my case I learned that things that don’t go the way you planned can offer great gifts. My best friend who got the lead in The Music Man was very insecure and really benefited from the opportunity to be a ‘star.’ I had already starred in several plays. I didn’t need another ego boost. What I needed was a chance to support others in a behind the scenes role, which I did as the student chorus director. In that role I learned more about myself and being part of a team than I would have in the spotlight.)

4. What do I do now? End your conversation with your teen by helping your son or daughter plan ‘next steps.’ Gently encourage them to think about their answers to these questions:

  • What responsibility do you have in what happened?
  • What have you learned? (It may be too soon for them to know what they’ve learned. But if you take the point of view that you can always learn something valuable, they can be on the lookout for lessons that come from disappointments.)
  • What do you need to change to keep it from happening again?

Then help them set some new goals.

Life’s all about learning, taking what you learn in this moment, and using it to move forward. It’s all about the long journey…that’s the Big Picture.

In friendship,

Annie

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