Connecting with Challenging Kids by Leaning in to Discomfort
Off-putting behavior can make us feel awkward—but it's a message, an unintentional way that children and teens telegraph their emotional pain. When we lean in to that pain, the results change the conversation.
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” – Leo Buscaglia, author of Living, Loving and Learning’ (1982)
I (Mitch Abblett) have 20 years of clinical experience with a range of challenging clients, from teen sex offenders to combat veterans to teens at intensive residential and therapeutic school settings. I’m a licensed psychologist who’s spoken nationally and internationally—I literally wrote the book on mindful management of difficult clients.
And I couldn’t even start a conversation with my own daughter, only six years old.
As I gripped the steering wheel and caught glimpses of her as she sat in the back seat, munching away on a bag of stale popcorn, I found myself going stale as well—my courage for breaking open the possible Pandora’s box of her pent-up angst over her own challenges at school was getting the better of me again.
I’d spent decades stepping into minefields of complex and volatile topics in my clinical work, yet my fear of tripping the wires of pain and discomfort for my daughter (and for me), was stopping me short.
Most of you reading this are (or will be) in a caregiving role (personal or professional) with a child who is struggling. When faced with a child or teen you know who suffers from an emotional or behavioral condition—or even if their situation is not “diagnosable,” yet you’re convinced they are struggling in a significant way—then it’s important to consider how willing you are to lean into the situation and devote the emotional energy to addressing the child directly. Is this child’s suffering an elephant in the room that’s blatantly clear and left unattended? Younger children need adults to set the tone for the “rules” for managing behavior—they need your explicit guidance. Teens (though they still need rules) may be struggling with a long history of not being understood—it may be part of their emerging “identity.” They may not trust your initial efforts to reach out to them as authentic and may brush you off.
If you’re a parent, family member, teacher, clinician, or in some other caregiver role, ask yourself how much addressing the child or teen’s suffering matters to you. If you find yourself convinced of your desire to help, check the following list of common obstacles. These are thoughts that often surface for caregivers, effectively scuttling their ability to be effective.
Self-Assessment of Caregiver Inner Obstacles to Helping:
“I’m not good at this stuff—I won’t find the right words.”
“I’m not an expert or trained at this.”
“I don’t want to overstep my boundaries.”
“I don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill—I don’t want to create a problem when one isn’t there.”
“I don’t want to trigger a huge meltdown.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Somebody else will talk with them, so I don’t need to.”
“They look fine, if something was needed from me, they would tell me.”
“I tried this once before and it didn’t go well.”
“It’s not the right time/place.”
“I don’t have this condition, so who am I to try and help?”
“I don’t know if this is really necessary in this instance.”
If you noted one or more of the above thoughts as a common companion when you’ve been face-to-face with an agitated, upset, disruptive, or withdrawn child or teen, then it’s no wonder you’ve found it challenging to lean into the situation with full intention. Such thinking has a way of stalling the best of us. It would be completely understandable if you came toward the teen either too much “heat” (i.e. trying to force things to change) or not enough “warmth” (i.e. losing track of your heart-strings and bowing out in some way).
Creating a Foundation for Change: Lean in to Discomfort
The child or teen’s behavior may be off-putting or uncomfortable for you. But it is a “message”—it’s their unintentional way of telegraphing their emotional pain. Discomfort and inconvenience to the side, ask yourself: When it comes to this kid’s suffering, am I willing acknowledge the elephant in the room?
The child or teen’s behavior may be off-putting or uncomfortable for you. But it is a “message”—it’s their unintentional way of telegraphing their emotional pain.
The act of taking the time to even ask or check up on the child helps far more than you will ever realize. Trust yourself. You’re doing right here. You’re doing good work just thinking about this, and the their needs. Even if you are wrong about the need to help in a particular situation, just the willingness to ask pays so many dividends down the line in the child’s life. It plants the seed of compassion exactly when they needed to believe that their challenges would be heard. It teaches them that such caring is possible, and helps them receive compassion, and perhaps spread it to others. They learn to say to themselves something like: “Wow…Mr/Ms. X really is trying to understand what’s happening to me … they might really care…”. In response to such a gift, the child or teen might even venture believing that they’re not as “defective” or “crazy” as they might have assumed. It opens up a new line of communication. “Maybe I can talk with other adults in the future now and not hide it…maybe I can even start opening up about stuff.” Mindfulness of our thoughts and feelings in awkward or uncomfortable caregiving situations creates this foundation for compassion and change for children.
As in the list above, you might say to yourself, “But I’m not trained in this. I’ll screw it up. The kid will see through me and know I have no idea what I’m talking about. I’ll make it worse. I’ll end up hurting their feelings by saying something unintentionally hurtful.”
Think of it this way—when you’re compassionately and mindfully working through tough situations with kids and teens, you’re not the “expert” adult—instead, you’re just a fellow human being.
No, you’re not an expert in this field (or maybe you are and still have doubts!). But expertise or acumen is not what you’re not trying to prove here, anyway. That’s not the role you’re seeking to achieve. You’re not assuming ultimate responsibility for this child or teen’s inner experience, nor should you. While parents are responsible for kids’ welfare, only the child themselves is in charge of how they think and feel (especially true with teens). But how you manage yourself—how willing you are to break silence or slow your reactive “get your act together” comments—determines what ingredients they will have to work with in future situations. Your compassionate courage can set the stage for them taking healthy risks and working through their own discomfort. Younger kids will benefit from the comfort and containment your interventions provide. Teens will increasingly respect your willingness to be respect them enough to be authentic. Think of it this way—when you’re compassionately and mindfully working through tough situations with kids and teens, you’re not the “expert” adult—instead, you’re just a fellow human being.
Obviously, if a child or teen does begin sharing with you and the content is highly “clinical” or safety-related (e.g. suicide, self-harm, substance abuse, or other high-risk behavior), it’s important to reach out to parents and experts in the child’s life. But many of us don’t wade in at all assuming someone else already has—that someone else has this under control. It’s a form of bystander apathy that has literally contributed to preventable deaths, and can deaden a kid’s faith in adults’ willingness to help.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”—George Bernard Shaw
So when a child or teen is anxious, disruptive, shut down, or says they “don’t care,” the key is for you to lean into your discomfort and do or say something from a stance of mindful awareness that says that you indeed do care. Here’s the basic message to the them: “I want you to know that I am here to help you in any way that I can as your (teacher, uncle, mentor, insert-your-role-here)—to just make your time in my presence as comfortable as I possibly (within reason) can. I genuinely care.”
Use the practice below to lean into awkwardness or discomfort in the moment and take that leap with the kid. And then, be willing to do so again because a lot of kids (teens in particular) won’t believe that a first attempt was genuine, or that anyone will indeed stay in their corner. You have to be willing to keep showing up.
Compassionate, mindful communication with children who are struggling does not mean you’re going to be a pushover who lets kids get away with anything. Yes, hold teens accountable for the effects of behavior on others, and be willing to do so with a stance of compassion, inner flexibility, and a willingness to focus on their needs, not yours.
From the back seat, my daughter let me know she didn’t want to talk about her troubles at school. “I don’t want to talk about it, Daddy!” she yelled. She was quiet for a while, and so was I.
“It makes me embarrassed,” she said, quietly, like a small animal venturing out from its safe haven.
We then talked the rest of the way home about how tough such feelings can be, and I had the beautiful experience of listening as she risked walking gingerly over new ground with her budding emotionality. I got to plant a seed and watch in wonder as it sprouted far sooner than I thought possible. I needed only be willing to bear witness to my own discomfort without flinching. I just needed to lean in.
Mindfulness Practice: Seeing Behind Bad Behavior
When you simply know a child or teen is in need, and the circumstances seem awkward, make you anxious, or it feels as though it’s really better left to others, consider practicing the following. Consider “eyeing the prize” behind the kid’s behavior by reaching out to the vulnerable part of them that prompted the situation in the first place. This soft spot is truly the “prize,” because if you help the child or teen hold it with compassion, incredible things can come of it to expand their life.
Use this practice to lean into awkwardness or discomfort in the moment and take that leap with the kid. And then, be willing to do so again because a lot of kids (teens in particular) won’t believe that a first attempt was genuine, or that anyone will indeed stay in their corner. You have to be willing to keep showing up.
1. Establish mindful PRESENCE . . . Notice sensations of anxiety, discomfort or frustration that are showing up in your body as you approach the child or teen. Let the sensations be just as they are. Breathe into them.
2. REMEMBER . . . this kid is suffering, and did not choose it (and even if they’re doing something negative or disruptive “on purpose” in that moment, they didn’t wake up in the morning with a master scheme to mess with everyone).
3. INTERVENE from the “ZERO POINT” (i.e. drop all your agendas for meeting your own needs and making yourself comfortable, and focus on what matters most for this young person). INTERVENE by:
Seeing the “truth” (i.e. specifically stating what you see happening without any labels or judgment—what is the child or teen doing?)
Speaking the truth for you (i.e. saying that you are concerned and want to help, be supportive, listen, etc.)
Speaking the truth for them (i.e. saying that you have no way of knowing what it feels like for them, but that you’re curious and willing to listen without judgment or a sense that the kid is “bad”)
Being the truth (i.e. actually listen to truly understand the child or teen versus waiting to make your point; also following through on doing things that support, advocate, or give assistance to them; and also be a model of flexibility, courage and compassion with your own behavior).
4. EMPOWER the child or teen by letting them know you are confident they can manage this, that it’s okay to accept help, and that the choice for how they experience and express what’s hard for them is always up to them.
Buscaglia, L. (1982). Living, Loving and Learning. New York: Ballantine.
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