Christopher Shum is a psychology researcher and managing director of Motus Learning - a company that carries out research-driven mental health programs in schools. Today he reveals how to parent when your teen is sad.
Your child bursts in the door after school, drops their bag and advances towards their bedroom with intent. The door slams and you hear their body weight collapse on their bed. As you stand by the door expecting your regular greeting, you’re left confused as you don’t even get eye contact. Something clearly isn’t right.
Sadness is an emotion that is impossible to avoid. It comes and goes with the trials and tribulations of life. We can’t be happy all of the time and when happiness subsides, sadness creeps in. Combine this with a teen’s newly developed social status continuously being threatened, poor decision making and the toxic environment of secondary school and we create a dangerously ugly concoction. I’m here to tell you how to approach your inconsolable teen.
What is sadness?
‘Smile and the whole world smiles with you. Cry and you cry alone.’
Firstly, we need to modify how we understand sadness. Sadness is an emotion that is impossible to avoid so why do we try to avoid it? Every emotion has a useful function as they were developed to help our ancestors survive. For example, the emotion of fear helped us run away from dangerous situations, while disgust helped us quickly spit out poisonous food. But what’s the function of sadness?
Evolutionary psychologists believe the reason our ancestors needed sadness was to ensure that we weren’t killed while hunting due to lack of concentration. For example, if one of our ancestors lost a close member in their tribe while hunting the day before, our brains would become depressed to ensure that he or she stayed in the cave the next day.
If he or she did not stay, they would go out hunting with a lack of focus or concentration and have an increased probability to be killed. Fast forward 3000 years, and our brains are still doing the same thing. The neurochemicals that we understand as sadness are released to help your child slow down what they’re doing (study, athletics and normal living) and reflect on what has just happened, whether it be a bad break up, bullying or the death of a loved one.
Therefore, sadness is just a message from our brain to slow down and reflect on what has happened. Changing our understanding of sadness in itself can have huge effects. By embracing what the sadness is asking us to do, we can better regulate it.
Alternatively, interpreting it as something that needs to be pushed away and repressed is backwards and unhelpful. If we try to ignore our sadness, it might go away for a while but it’ll keep coming back again and again, because we’re not listening to what our brain is telling us to do. It’s like trying to build IKEA furniture by ignoring the instructions. You might get a standing wardrobe but it’s not going to last long.
How do you deal with sadness?
So now your child understands that it is ok to feel sad. Next step is to deal with the sadness.
To date, the most effective treatment is cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT, a treatment that is a useful skill for anyone. CBT is built on the premise that how we think affects how we behave, which then affects how we feel. For example, when we think that we’re definitely going to fail a test, then this will lead to the behaviour of not studying, which will then lead to you failing the test and feeling disappointed afterwards.
CBT states that there are two ways we can think: Helpful ways and unhelpful ways (note: NOT positive and negative). The terminology matters here because not all positive thoughts are helpful. We need to be aware of the negatives and not discredit them.
For example, thinking ‘everything is fine’ when the family member you loved for many years has passed away is positive, but it’s not very helpful. Due to thoughts then leading to behaviours, this means that helpful thoughts will lead to helpful behaviours and unhelpful thoughts will lead to unhelpful behaviours. This means that if your teen is thinking ‘my life is terrible’, ‘I’m never going to be ok again’ and ‘this situation is all my fault’, then this will lead to the unhelpful behaviours of locking themselves in their room, not talking to anyone and not doing fun stuff.
This then ends up in this endless cycle of continuously overthinking the situation and negative thoughts (rumination), which then begins to impact sleep and concentration levels and lo and behold, the sadness isn’t disappearing any time soon.
However, we can flip this situation and choose helpful thoughts. For example, if you think that ‘sometimes negative stuff happens’ (a negative and helpful thought), ‘I won’t be sad forever’ and ‘there is a correct way to deal with this’, then this will lead to the helpful behaviours of slowing down, discussing what happened with family and friends, and slowly going back to normal living, and then voila, the sadness dissipates.
How to respond to "I'm grand"
So that’s a solution. But the next question is how do you implement it?
There’s a reader screaming at this piece, ‘I don’t know what my son is thinking!’. Well, this is where talking comes in. Talking is bringing thoughts to the physical world and it is where unhelpful thoughts can be corrected. That is why talking therapies are so effective!
And then I know the counter-response to this one. ‘My daughter doesn’t want to talk about it’. If that is the case, then that’s ok. However, that does not mean that you simply shy away and let them deal with it themselves. That’s just another form of repression.
Instead, the secret to this is unconditional support. You will ask your teen if they are ok and they will go with the classic ‘I’m grand’ despite their pillow being covered in mascara, or they will say no as they slam the door in your face. Welcome to teen life!
You might take this a step further and then ask do they want to talk about it, to which they will say no as the door crashes shut again. Again, this is normal. There is a simple tip that Clinical Psychologists use to overcome this. When you’re dealing with someone else’s sadness, you don’t need to make the sadness go away straight away. For years, I used to respond to difficult situations with solutions to the problem. ‘Why don’t you do this?’ Or ‘that would be a good thing to do’. The problem with this is that even if it is the best advice the world, you’re invalidating their sadness. You’re telling them that it’s not ok that you feel sad and, in that moment, it’s not helpful.
Instead, what is far more effective is something as simple as ‘that must be difficult’, or ‘if I was in your position, I’d feel the same’. Sit with that sadness. Some will force their child to talk about it despite them not being ready, some will avoid it because they are uncomfortable talking about it themselves, but the best thing we can do is validate their sadness by just being there. Unconditional support.
And it might take time. It could be a few hours, even a few months. But the only cure to sadness is time and when they start going back to normal living, their perception of time will go quicker and that frown will turn upside down.
So, work backwards.
Validate their sadness, which will lead to them talking about it, which will lead to unhelpful thoughts being corrected, which will lead to children having a healthy understanding about why it’s important to be sad.
I’ll conclude this with advice from a ten-year-old in one of our workshops. When his friend was feeling down, he told him the wise words of “don’t be sad, because sad backwards in das, and das not good”. The simplicity of this statement is incredibly effective because while it won’t change the situation, it made his friend smile for a second and this makes him aware that he won’t be sad forever.
Remember, it’s more than ok to be sad. It’s actually important.
Christopher Shum is a psychology researcher and managing director of Motus Learning - a company that carries out research-driven mental health programs in schools.