Expressing your feelings is not always psychologically healthy according to research published in the October 2011 journal Anxiety, Stress & Coping. Researchers from England asked 149 college students to keep track of how they coped with troublesome events throughout the day. Strategies such as venting to others or seeking social support were not particularly successful with these students. However, techniques as humor, acceptance, and reframing the problem in a different way worked much better.
This issue comes up regularly in my office, as I tell kids that expressing your feelings is never a goal of therapy, but rather a means to achieve some other goal such as behaving more appropriately or solving problems more effectively. Here’s what I emphasize.
- Avoid constantly repeating the same problem over and over. Talking about difficulties can actually make things worse, and contribute to a sense of negativism or depression. Frequently recounting your woes to others may tend to reinforce or even exaggerate the problem. If a child has a problem with a particular teacher, I advise that student not to complain to her parents every day, but rather to discuss the efficacy of various alternative coping strategies.
- Be selective on when, where, and how you communicate your feelings. Avoid greeting your spouse at the door with the latest crisis of the day. Relate something positive that happened to you, or just give her a warm hug. Many times it’s best not to vent when you are angry, but rather to calm down and try to figure out what is really going on.
Kids frequently want to reach out to their peers for support but I urge caution. Today’s best friend can be tomorrow’s social pariah.
I understand this puts kids in a quandary, as they may want to share experiences about a painful divorce or parent’s drinking problem. I’ve found that teachers rather than fellow students are a much safer connection for kids.
- If you can’t do anything about a problem, let it go. I worked with a preteen who was very upset that her biological father didn’t maintain any contact with her. We discussed this for several sessions, and then I told her it was time to stop repeating the same stories. She could do nothing to change her father’s behavior, so it was time for her to appreciate what she had rather than lament what she didn’t.
- Develop other coping strategies rather than venting. Acceptance, humor, and positive reframing were all effective techniques for college students, and I’ve found the same approach to work with kids. I encourage kids to think differently about a problem, lighten up a bit, and learn to accept some things that cannot be changed.
Let’s continue to encourage kids to talk about their problems, but let’s also remind them that it is only the first step in actually doing something positive to get over them!
Next week: How to Avoid Another Penn State