Living on the Edge: Emotional Attunement and Working with Kids

In the recent movie, “The Edge of Seventeen,” Woody Harrelson plays a teacher who, while eating lunch, finds himself face-to-face with one of his adolescent students who just wanted him to know that she planned to kill herself. Undaunted by this announcement, he states that he was just writing down a list of reasons about why he should do the same!

In this cinematic moment, Harrelson was actually demonstrating several fundamental principles of working with children and adolescents. First, he controlled his own emotional responsiveness to this student’s announcement instead of panicking, and second, he joined with her (and actually heightened the absurdity of the situation) to give her the impression that he was more like her. Both actions (not recommended for the pale at heart) resulted in taking the wind out of the student’s sails, and she acknowledged that she really wanted some attention and someone with whom to speak. Granted, his behavior was risky; however, he knew the student’s penchant for drama, and decided to exercise emotional attunement as a way of addressing her needs.

Children and adolescents, in particular, often present their parents, teachers, and therapists, with outrageous statements and behaviors meant to induce in them feelings to help them understand how they are feeling, and, in some instances, to test them to see if they can tolerate their emotional state. While all statements from kids need to be taken seriously, the key to working with them is to first be able to tolerate the emotions they are communicating long enough to understand them without having these propel you into actions that merely diminish your own discomfort while doing little for the kids who were making their best effort to communicate with you. This is not an easy task. It is similar to being a boxer who is challenged by a fierce heavyweight and needing to find a way not to go down after the first punch.

In this age of direct and faster therapeutic approaches, it must be remembered that the professional literature is in agreement that the most important ingredient of successful therapy is the establishment of a therapeutic alliance. Without it, there is no leverage-i.e. no reason for  child patients to allow themselves to be constructively influenced by you. The same process holds true for parents who are feeling frustrated by their kids. Unless kids feel that someone else is willing to hear their story, tolerate the emotions conveyed, and understand how to be accurately emotionally responsive (i.e. to determine what specific response is needed), they are unlikely to feel that the parent or therapist or teacher is the “right” one to be trusted with their innermost secrets.

Although it is certainly easier to do this in a movie when nothing is at stake, when it is your child or student, the stakes are higher. Learning how to be emotionally attuned and to be accurately emotionally responsive can be learned and a good therapist can teach it. Practicing these principles is like planting the seed that can grow into future successful encounters with your kids.

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