Reflecting strong emotions: think V.O.5. shampoo

Andrew Wake Newsletter, Parenting

Hi to all,

For those who have read the chapter or watched the video on reflecting, you will have heard how tricky it can be to be reflective.  When emotions are high it is so easy and so natural to react.

I have always found a structure helps me to keep my mind clear and focussed, and I recently came up with the idea of “V.O.5”.  (For those of you with memories of 80’s and 90’s advertising you may remember the ad with a young woman with fabulous hair doing the hand signals of V.O.5.  For those who are interested but who haven’t seen the ad, you can find it on youtube).

There is a type of personality disorder in adults that is characterised by very high emotionality and instability.  Lots of sadness, anxiety and rage all mixed in together, and at times these patients act riskily and end up in the emergency departments with self-harm.  As a 1st year trainee it was my job to see these people and work out what to do.  After my first assessment went terribly (and seemingly forever), I spoke with my supervisor about what I could have done differently.  I remember her response: “There are three things you do when a patient has high emotions…validate, validate, validate”.

What she meant was that before you get into trying to solve the problem, you need to attempt to understand where the patient is at…to acknowledge their feelings as real and worthy of attention.  This is what a validation is.  Effectively you are saying to patient, “I see you, I hear you, that sounds terrible, I am trying to understand what has happened to you”.  Validation is not agreeing with them or making an judgment about the rights or wrongs of what happened, it is simply showing that you are seeing it from their perspective.  This experience of being understood both calms their reptile / survival brain, and gives them an experience of someone connecting with their mammal / relational brain.  Once calm and connected, the patient is usually more amenable to have a conversation about what happened, and think more clearly about where to from here.

When our children have strong emotions, it is often associated with some problem or complaint.  If we get caught in trying to immediately fix the problem or argue about the nature of the problem, we can be drawn into a combative interaction about it, and miss the opportunity to help our child calm and feel connected.  Without these two features, the conversation is unlikely to go well, and repair will be difficult.

So we come to the idea of V.O.5.

V is for Validate:  this is where using your own empathy you make a simple comment about what you think it must be like for your child at this time.  “I see you, I hear you, that sounds awful, that’s really tricky”, etc

O is for Offer to help: rather than telling them how they are being ridiculous (always tempting), you are offering yourself and offering them the opportunity to talk about it if they want.  “Is there anything I can do to help, would you like something, I’d like to understand if you want to talk about it, is now a good time to work it out”, etc.  If they come up with a request that you cannot do, you reply, “Well I can’t do that honey, is there anything else I can do to help?”  And of course if their request is reasonable such as “I’d like a hug”, then you do it.

5 is for repeat the offer, but not more than 5x: if your child has fully flipped their lid, your first attempt at helping them will likely be rejected.  Of course it will be.  Why would they be able to always bring themselves back together so quickly.  So you tolerate the rejection, accept that this is where your child is at, but you are not going to give up.  You will give them another opportunity to bring themselves back together but at a later time.  Typically after a first rejection I would be quiet for a while, then validate again and offer again within a minute.  That may also be rejected, so then I would say that we should take a break and I will come back a bit later and “when we are calm we will talk and sort it out”.  A few minutes later you would try again, and if this is rejected, wait 15-30 minutes and try again, and if that is rejected, try again later in the day.  If the 5th offer is rejected, unless the problem is so serious it must be talked about, I would let the event go.  The child is clearly over time saying they don’t want to talk about it.  You don’t want to stalk your child, constantly hammering them with attempts to help if they are clearly saying they don’t want your help.

And you can relax.  If the strong emotion is a one-off and no big deal, it won’t come up again.  And if it is a pattern and is a big deal and problem for your child, there will be plenty of future opportunities to V.O.5. their difficulties.  Your love for them is personal, and you won’t give up, but their strong emotions and tricky behaviours are THEIR problem that your are willing to help them with if they want: your business, their problem.