"I feel sad and I don't know why"

"I feel sad and I don't know why"

Often times teens will come to me and tell me that they feel sad or bad "for no reason at all."  Typically once we can help these teens learn to be more mindful and tune into their thoughts and feelings, a greater awareness of what is driving these feelings emerges.

In the meantime, insisting on knowing a reason or even insisting there's a reason at all can be counterproductive and create distance in the parent-child relationship.

In DBT, the Observe and Describe skill can be a great way to track your teen's mood and behavior while remaining non-judgmental and not adding pressure to your teen to have their feelings all figured out.

Stop Asking What's Wrong!

When you see that your teen is upset, you already KNOW what's wrong... they're upset!  This question is one of the biggest stressors reported by teens who are overwhelmed.  Be there with your child, help them implement coping skills, provide a safe space.  

Asking what's wrong is not always a question that can (or needs to be) answered when a problem arises.  The truth is that one difficult situation creates emotional vulnerability for the next situation that occurs. There may not be one identifiable trigger, but a build-up of difficult situations, or overwhelming feelings that your teen is not aware of in the moment.

What is important here is attending to the feeling and later allowing your teen to revisit the underlying concerns with a therapist to process his or her feelings and triggers that prompted it.

Now, I know being a parent myself that sometimes "What's wrong?" really means "How can I fix this?"  Remember, our goal isn't to fix or change feelings, but to validate them so that your teen feels heard and understood so that they can appropriately manage them in the moment.

If you try to fix or change your teen's feelings, you're sending the message that having these feelings is not ok... a message that can result in your teen managing those feelings in unhealthy ways.

Use the DBT Skills of Observe and Describe

Instead of saying, "What's wrong," observe the nonverbal and verbal cues of your teen and describe what you notice in a non-judgemental way.

The Observe and Describe skill is kind of like being a sports announcer.  You're tracking your teen's play by play in an effort to help them feel heard and validated without asking for them to give you anything in return.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

When you use Observe and Describe to reflect back to your teen that you SEE how they are feeling, it creates connection rather than distance.  Allow your teen's actions and behaviors to show you how they feel without asking for a verbal explanation too.  Sometimes words are not enough to truly convey a feeling and you can get all the information you need from your teen's nonverbals.

Focus on NOW, not then or when

Practice observing your teen's body language in the moment and describing what you see in an empathic and nonjudgmental tone.  You may find that in doing so your teen readily opens up verbally too because you've created a connection by telling them you understand rather than asking a question that implies that you don't.

You Can't Teach Your Teen To Swim When You're Both Drowning

Do you and your teen BOTH get overwhelmed by their emotions? 

Learn how to manage this overwhelm with the DBT skill called "Wise Mind" which is all about finding the balance between extremes.

If your child was drowning, you wouldn't jump into the deep end and start flailing around and gasping for air, would you?  

So... why do the same when your teen is drowning emotionally?

Know the signs and model healthy coping strategies 

When you notice your teen becoming emotional for any reason, remind yourself that it's your job to stay centered. You are the life raft.  Your job is to be stable to keep your teen afloat.

How can you stay calm in a  sea of emotional overload?

  • Take some deep breaths.  Try a 4-7-8 breath where you breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds and breathe out for eight seconds.  The counting and the breathing through your nose are both important parts of slowing down your body chemistry while occupying your mind.  It's a great go-to tool when you feel your own frustration start to rise.
  • Place two fingers to your wrist or jawline and feel your pulse as you count out fifteen beats.  Tuning into your own body will help to ground you and the rhythm and counting are a great way to refocus and calm down before responding to your teen.
  • Repeat a self-soothe mantra.  Remind yourself, "This too shall pass" or "I can be the life raft" or "I am strong and capable."  Find a way to reassure and comfort yourself.  When you offer yourself compassion in a difficult situation, you can then extend that compassion to your child as well.

Experience feelings while staying rational 

When your teen is overwhelmed by emotions, it's important to know where their feelings end and where yours begin.  If you look at the ven diagram above, it depicts the main concept of Wise Mind.  When someone is ruled by their emotions, they are using Emotion Mind.  When they are making decisions based completely in logic, they are in Reasonable Mind.  It is when you can access the balance, the blend of emotion and reason that you can actually be wise!

 What does this mean for you?  It means that you need to BE the balance so that your teen can SEE the balance!  Do your best to not get pulled over into Emotion Mind and to stay centered using the coping skills above (or coming up with your own.)

7 Ways to Nurture Yourself When Times Are Tough

As a teen therapist, I often work with my clients on practicing coping skills --ways to manage overwhelming emotions without making the situation worse.  But, the thing is… coping skills aren’t designed to make you feel good as much as they are intended to be a planned and temporary break from distress.  There’s an additional step involved to take the journey from coping to happy.  And it’s often the missing ingredient in many people’s lives.

Mindfulness:  The Missing Ingredient

Mindfulness is the key to slowing down, finding peace and truly living with joy in everyday life.  It opens the door to acceptance by helping us feel connected to ourselves, each other and the world.  

Mindfulness can be really helpful to lessen pain and emotional suffering because it helps to decrease the amount of time you spend with your emotions overwhelming you.  Mindfulness has been proven to reduce tension and stress, and even improve your health!

7 Ways to Nurture Yourself with Mindfulness…

Pay attention to the little things

Stop throughout your day and notice the small details of the world around you.  Set an alarm on your phone that goes off at a certain time of day to remind you to take a moment to pause.  Practice gratitude for small wins and seemingly insignificant events.  Small wins accumulate into big successes, so remember to soak in the good in each moment.

Focus on your senses.  

Use your five senses to notice what’s happening in your life.  If you typically walk through a building “on autopilot,” become a sensory detective instead.  Notice the smell of coffee wafting through the air.  Bring your awareness to the sounds of stifled laughter and quiet conversations.  Feel the cool breeze of a gentle wind caressing your skin.  The world can be a beautiful place when you use your senses to allow the mundane to become the amazing.

Return to your breath.

When all else fails, refocus your attention to your breathing.  Place a hand on your belly to notice the way your body rises and falls with your inhales and exhales.  Feel the refreshing rush of cool air enter your nostrils and the tickle of warm breath that you exhale.  Use counting as a way to measure inhales and exhales, or repeat a comforting mantra to yourself on each breath.

Protect the quiet moments.

In a chaotic world where busy is often glorified as a measure of success, remember to protect your downtime which is essential to self-care.  Give yourself permission to do nothing for an hour, or schedule in a nurturing activity like a bubble bath, massage or walk through a quiet bookstore.

Find beauty in the arts.

Listen to your favorite song and notice how each part works together to create an auditory experience.  Look at photographs or visit an art museum and notice how your body responds to colors, shapes and lines in different ways.  Allow art to be a whole body experience that involves all of your senses.

Find delight in the details.

Commit to observing your surroundings and looking for five to ten details you may not have otherwise noticed.  Spend a minute observing something you use everyday (like your cell phone) and look for intricacies that you have yet to discover.

Hold your feelings with compassion.

Recognize when stress, sadness and anxiety come up for you in your thoughts, body sensations and actions and practice holding them like you would a baby animal (with a gentle and loving protection.)  Validate that it’s ok to feel your feelings when times are tough and offer yourself the same compassion that you would a child or good friend if they were going through the same experience.

If you’ve fallen on tough times, or are feeling the stress of world changes, mindfulness can certainly help you reframe difficult thoughts and refocus on what IS working so that you find more balance in your life.