As the new school year approaches and families begin to feel the stress of having to decide, among other things, which learning option is best for them, there is one thing that adults and parents can do to cope with their anxieties and frustrations – talking.

Talking isn’t a panacea for everything, but it is one of the fastest, safest and most effective ways to reduce conflict, reduce anxiety, strengthen emotional connection and increase emotion regulation.

Talking is an example of doing or taking action. Talking isn’t easy and requires effort, which is why talking can produce such dramatic results. Talking alone can create powerful feelings of empathy, connection and mastery. At the same time, talking can make things worse by intentionally or accidentally saying words that hurt, show lack of understanding for another’s experience and/or come across as blaming or shaming.

Here are 4 tips to make talking more effective when when trying resolve an issue:

  1. Stay calm and go slow – Take a deep breath and pay attention to your heart beat. Use a calm voice that isn’t too loud. If you’re yelling, no one will hear you. Don’t impulsively say things just because they come to mind. You can always have another conversation if something gets missed.
  2. Be vulnerable and take responsibility – Take your time to find the most authentic words to explain your thoughts and feelings. If you are vulnerable and take responsibility where you can, it will de-escalate any tension very quickly. Try to focus on yourself with “I” statements rather than “you” statements which can feel blaming. Sarcasm will be counterproductive.
  3. Pay attention to the receiver – If your words are making them more upset and not de-escalating, then try to adjust your message. Be flexible in how you approach talking about the issue. There may be more than one way in. And feel free to abort and retry another time if things get too hot.
  4. Model how you want the conversation to go – The best way to ask for what you want is to first give what you want. If you are calm, honest, vulnerable and empathic with the listener, they are way more likely to follow suit.

Here are some clinical examples from our team of psychologists that showcase how talking can help in different scenarios:

  • Parents/couple fighting about money, sex, parenting, in-laws, etc…, and how talking to each other differently helped them calm down, listen better, understand more, increase empathy and resolve their differences without blowing up or disengaging. The more vulnerable they are, the less their partner feels the need to attack.

    “I had a parenting session during which the father was explaining how he felt his mother-in-law was critical of his parenting, and felt his wife wasn’t sticking up for him. The wife just shrugged it off as just how her mother is and told her husband not to take it personally. I helped the husband express his emotions related to the situation, and the wife to validate his emotional experience of the criticism. This has helped the husband to feel more supported, and allowed the two parents to have a more open dialogue, which has helped them parent in a more unified way.”

  • Child getting upset about something and the parent helps the child to express their feelings and frustrations by giving labels and words. Parent models staying calm and using their own words for the child which helps the child do the same. Maybe the parent helps the child connect their big emotions about something seemingly small on the surface to something deeper or more scary. The parent helps the child make a plan to feel more in control and build mastery.

    “I work with a teenager who struggled to communicate openly with her parents about how she was feeling and what she needed from them when she was upset, and would instead yell or shut herself in her room. We practiced and role played what she would like to communicate to them-explaining how she feels and asking for help-and then had a session together with the parents. It was very helpful for the three of them to have words to describe what was going on underneath the behavior, to hear from the daughter how she was feeling, and to all talk together about what would be most helpful during those moments.”

  • Parent/adult discussing their own personal stress about work, their relationship, money fears and frustrations. They share their thoughts and feelings, over and over again, each time trying to get closer to the underlying reasons for their frustration. They think about what they might say, maybe even role playing it out to themselves. Rather than keeping their thoughts and feelings inside where they can fester and leak out, they choose to share, even if it makes them look weak.

    “I have been working with a family on parenting their child with anxiety, which is especially challenging during COVID. Over a number of sessions, we started to discuss the mother’s own childhood, family dynamics, and how that had begun to pervade her own mental health and how she perceived herself as a parent. Through our work and her own individual sessions, she has been working to get to the underlying thought patterns that have been coloring a lot of her current parenting. These conversations have opened us up to discussing the notion of putting the oxygen mask on yourself first before you can put it on your child, which has in turn started to clear a path toward parenting in this time.”

  • Siblings fighting about sharing a toy, not getting enough parental attention or feelings of jealousy. Usually one sibling is lower functioning than the other and might have a chip on their shoulder or feels constantly slighted. The parent engages both siblings in private to help them each share their point-of-view and have empathy for the other sibling. Then the parent brings them together to talk further. This single interaction doesn’t change the course of their relationship, but chips away that future negative interactions by building a stronger base for emotional communication.

    “I work with a young girl who has low self-esteem and social difficulties. She often provokes her older siblings for negative attention or rejects them, even though she very much wants to play together. She feels jealous of her siblings’ social lives and effortless connections with friends. She also speaks very harshly to and rejects her parents attempts for connection and assistance because of her fear they will expose her inadequacies. Through talking together with her parents and siblings, we have exposed these patterns and helped create new scripts for each family member to test out during moments of conflict. Her siblings gained a better understanding of their sister’s behavioral motivations and internal feelings of shame. Instead of reacting with anger and discipline when my patient acts immaturely or negatively, her parents now use strategic language to label her underlying emotions that ultimately help her express her feelings, which in turn, decreases her tendency to act out.”

Talking can be a true gift to yourself and those around you, especially if you make the effort to do it right. Talking can unlock painful experiences from the past, and remove the most seemingly static blockages in a relationship. Talking comes natural to some, while others need to learn. Either way, talking is a powerful tool for overcoming obstacles, such as those we are facing now and those around the corner in September.

I hope you found these talking tips helpful and that your school transition this September goes as smooth as possible.

As always, we are here to help if you need us at 646-450-6210 or [email protected]

Written by  Joshua Rosenthal, PsyD

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