I recently heard a story on National Public Radio that caught my interest. It was about what happens when someone makes a social mistake, does something embarrassing or has a personal setback. The conclusion was that we expect others to judge us more harshly for these types of things than others actually do. So while we are busy judging ourselves and being self-conscious, others might notice but then quickly move on. This led me to think about confiding in others.
Sometimes there are things we just need to get “off our chests.” It could be venting about something that happened that day, like getting an expensive parking ticket. Or it could be something that did not go as planned, such as a performance review at work, or having your child not make a team they tried out for, or not get accepted into their first choice college. When things like this happen, you might really need to talk to someone and share your disappointment. And that might actually help, especially if the person is a good listener. But, you might also hesitate to share that news, because of concern it might reflect negatively on you or your family, or depict a failure or set-back, and will certainly show vulnerability.
It can be difficult to be the “teller” of not-such-good news…..and not just because of the news itself, but also due to a fear of being judged, or concern that the listener won’t understand. But think of a time that someone shared something like that with you. Did you listen and ask some questions? Maybe you offered some advice or thoughts based on your previous experiences. Perhaps you were empathic with the situation they found themselves in.
When you were the listener, you just tried to be a good friend. Moreover, you might have been glad that the person confided in you.
There is research that shows that confiding in others actually has health benefits. The work of social psychologist James Pennebaker has documented this in many of his studies over many years. He found that those who confided in others, (getting their burden off their chests) saw health benefits over those who did not share. Some of the benefits included reduced blood pressure, improved sleep and improved immune function. Pennebaker stated that the actual event (the reason you are unhappy) is one stressor, and then keeping it inside is an additional stressor – all taking a toll on the body.
So, in the role of parents, how can we help our kids learn to get their feelings out and confide in others? Some kids are natural “sharers” of their feelings, and some kids keep everything inside. Pre-teens and teens (who might have been sharers at a younger age) might become more tight-lipped starting about the age of 12. Brooding is a word that comes to mind. It can be difficult as a parent when you feel that you are losing that open communication with your child. When we notice our children are unhappy or pouting, we ask them what is wrong. Often they don’t want to tell us. So rather than press them on it, just saying “I’m ready to listen whenever you feel like talking” allows them come to you in their own time. Often, kids like to talk at bedtime when the room is dark, or in the car, where they don’t have to make direct eye contact.
When they are ready to talk, it helps to take the conversation at their pace, (by not asking the hundred questions that we’d like to ask…..). This can help encourage them to keep talking. If they become quiet, we can stay quiet too. Those long, uncomfortable silences can give kids a chance to think about what they want to say next. Resolution of the issue might not come out of one conversation. Many of us are very good “solvers” and we want to help our children solve the problem. We have great ideas, because we have been through these things. But they might just want us to listen and to know that they have been heard.
So think about your “go-to” people when you need to talk. A spouse, a friend, a parent, a sibling, a therapist. Each listens in a different way. And think about the emotional burden you might alleviate by talking to a caring person in your life, and the connection you might strengthen with them because you are sharing. And the better health you might enjoy as a result.