By Kathryn Rea Smith, PH.D.
A few weeks ago I received a lengthy text message from my son. He was feeling upset about something that happened at school and decided to write about the experience to see if he could determine why he felt bad. He added, “I’ll let you read this and we can talk tonight after I finish my homework.” Right away, I noticed that by writing about and wanting to talk about his negative feelings, my son, at age 16, had discovered an approach to dealing with emotions that I did not learn until I was a doctoral student in a Counseling Psychology program. In this article, I will elaborate upon the three-step approach demonstrated by my son for effectively coping with and working through distressing emotions.
Step one: Notice and accept that you are feeling distressed. This step can be a tricky one. Sometimes negative emotions are glaringly obvious and, at other times, they are more subtle and difficult to notice. Additionally, many people are prejudiced against negative emotions, believing them to be bad or wrong, an attitude they may have adopted in childhood based on messages received from adults in their lives. In reality negative emotions, such as anger and sadness, play an essential role in our overall mental health by alerting us to something important in our lives that requires our attention.
There are many things parents can do to cultivate a child’s ability to notice and accept negative emotions. Parents can emphasize that feelings are neither bad nor good, and they can help with identifying a particular feeling (e.g. “You seem upset—is something bothering you?”). Parents can convey an accepting attitude regarding all feelings. To that end, a child should not be told, “don’t be mad” (or sad, or disappointed, or jealous, or afraid, etc.). Rather, children should be told that all feelings are valid and necessary for understanding and making sense of our experiences. When parents convey an accepting attitude towards negative emotions, children are more likely to acknowledge and accept their own emotions.
Step two: Write about your negative feelings to gain clarity and perspective. Studies over the last 30 years have shown that writing about negative feelings or events has benefits for mental health. These studies suggest that the act of writing about upsetting feelings lends structure and coherence to an internal experience that initially seems amorphous and overwhelming. Through writing, you can begin to tackle the often urgent question, “Why am I feeling this way?” Writing about your feelings can be a form of self-empathy for times when it’s not possible to talk to another person, either due to situational constraints or concerns about privacy. There are several convenient options for where to write, such as a journal, notebook, computer, or phone.
In the case of my son and his recent text message, through writing about why he was upset, he discovered several troubling aspects of his experience that he had not been aware of prior to writing about it. Writing also helped him calm himself down and have self-empathy. After reading what he had written, his immediate sense was, “No wonder I’m so upset.”
Step three: Discuss what you have written with a good listener. Although writing about negative feelings is sometimes sufficient in itself, in many cases, talking about feelings is necessary for working through them. As my son did with his text message to me, the written product describing the feelings can be shared along with a request for a talk. A good listener listens with acceptance and empathy and with the goal of facilitating understanding. By reading what was written, the listener can orient more quickly to the issues at hand in conversation.
When my son and I finally spoke, we had a great talk after which he felt much better. Even though it was difficult to see my son struggle with painful emotions, I was, at the same time, grateful that he has acquired and can use key skills comprising emotional intelligence: noticing, writing about, and talking about negative emotions.
Kathryn Rea Smith, Ph.D. is a private practice psychologist specializing in psychological assessment and parenting consultation. Dr. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.