Stressed Out Teens - Empathic Parents: What to Do When It's Contagious?
Dr. Lynn Margolies
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.
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, bright, and well-liked. He struggled at school with executive function deficits and anxiety. Anxiety made it harder for him to think and focus - while the impact of repeatedly feeling incompetent created more anxiety.
James was attached to his mom but irritable and rejecting when she asked him about homework, yelling to leave him alone and accusing her of not trusting him. He pretended everything was under control, but secretly felt stupid and ashamed. Using procrastination, avoidance, and cover up, he desperately tried to escape failure and exposure. 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.
This cycle of pileup and inevitable crash was painfully obvious to James’ mom - who experienced insidious anxiety and dread on her son’s behalf that was uncannily similar to his feelings. Though informed, intuitive, and a good mom, she became increasingly cautious and tentative to avoid upsetting and discouraging James.
What went wrong here?
Intuitive parents with a sensitive emotional connection to their kids 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 empathy can go awry, as in this example, morphing into a mutual contagion in which parents “catch” teens’ pain and become a source of retransmission. When this happens parents, in effect, mirror teens’ disabling feelings and temporarily lose access to their own executive functions - leaving no one with sufficient distance, flexibility, perspective, or equanimity to help.
James’ mom was sensitively linked to James’ anxiety and dread of failure - experiencing these feelings on her own and his behalf, and colluding in anxious avoidance. This dynamic developed into a pattern of cautious, overprotective parenting - a common problem afflicting worried parents.
The problem with overcautious, overprotective parenting
Fearful of triggering James, his mom tiptoed 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, empowering a cycle of pessimism and irritability followed by guilt and shame.
In an attempt to protect James from feeling exposed and despondent, his mom did not speak the truth they both knew. However, this 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, or letting him leave school during panic attacks, rewarded avoidance by giving him instant relief. Alternatively, when escape isn’t available, it creates incentive and opportunity for teens to learn new strategies - breaking the cycle of avoidance.
Positive example of talking to teens about difficult things:
James’ mom sought help for James and parent guidance. With self-awareness she learned to access a more settled mindset - guided by putting on her hazmat suit, being brave and unflinching, and securing James’ collaboration before conversations.
When James lied again about having handed in his research paper and other homework, his mom was on to him, as always. But this time she used an improved, approach strategy for talking with him in these difficult situations:
Phase I - making a request, planning“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.) or “Hey, I have an idea?” (If done in a positive tone authentically, this often works - encouraging curiosity. Wait to see 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 react instinctively; implies the belief that he’s capable of this.)“Afterwards, if you want to dismiss it that’s fine.” (Allows autonomy and control, makes it more manageable.) “Can you agree to do this?"(Get's consent-enhancing compliance.)or“Do you think you can do that?” (In some cases, can function as a positive challenge/motivator- but only if delivered as a true question in a neutral tone, and you're confident it won't be perceived as blaming or condescending.)
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 everything's too much - your natural reaction is to block things out to get space and some peace.” (Makes it sound understandable that he does this.) “I have the feeling 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 autonomy, giving him freedom to consider it because 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.” (Takes pressure off.) “If it were true (helps 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 if he doesn’t take you up on it then.)
Summary of helpful parenting approach and mindset
Approaching - rather than avoiding - problems using a confident, matter-of-fact, respectful demeanor and time-limited, planned approach helps 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 James’ mom was able to be forthright, courageous and calm while facing difficulties with him, she appealed to and elicited a higher level of functioning. Through their interactions, James’ mom gave him the chance to experience himself as more capable and cooperative, relieving shame and guilt.
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.” In this example, the mom transmitted the tune of a more regulated state of mind to her son. And, through staying grounded and steady, she improved their relationship - parents’ most protective resource for teens.
Dr. Lynn Margolies is a psychologist and former Harvard Medical School faculty and fellow, and has completed her internship and post-doc at McLean Hospital. She has helped people from all walks of life with relationship, family, life problems, trauma, and psychological symptoms including depression, anxiety, and chronic conditions. Dr. Margolies has worked in inpatient, outpatient, residential and private practice settings. She has supervised others, and consulted to clinics, hospitals, universities, newspapers. Dr. Margolies has appeared in media -- on news and talk shows, and written columns for various publications. Dr. Margolies is currently in private practice in Newton Centre, MA. Visit her website at drlynnmargolies.com.