Talking about unspeakable things

Andrew Wake Newsletter, Parenting

I’ve been invited to present a workshop in Malaysia about how to help parents talk to their children about unspeakable things, and it got me thinking about what things are hard to talk about, and why that may be.

It is a common experience when talking with someone about what is bothering them, for there to be a time of silence.  We can often be lost for words when trying to explain aspects of our story that we perceive are shameful.

There is a cliche in counselling: “If you can talk about something, it’s probably is not a problem”.

Whether as a parent or a therapist, knowing how long to leave a silence in situations like this is challenging: we don’t want to step in too early and save the people we care about from the pain of their story, as we know that putting their inner thoughts and feelings into words probably helps them to discover for themselves what they think, and helps them move towards acceptance.  But we also don’t want the person we care about to feel persecuted by a silence they are not yet ready to fill with the shame they may feel about the unspeakable thing.

I have found the “VO5” idea particularly useful at these times: validating that something is difficult, and offering if there is anything you can do to support them talk about the thing that is hard.  “This seems really hard for you.  If this is the right time, I’m hear to listen.  But if not, that’s ok too and I’ll check in with you again to see when would be a good time”.

Another option is to present it as a “dilemma”.  After noting something is tricky for them, you overt the dilemma: that you don’t want to talk for them or avoid the issue, but you also don’t want them to feel bad.  “I guess I don’t quite know how best to be helpful.  What do you think we should do?”

Generally, it is shameful things that are hard to talk about.  Anything which you think leads to judgment from the other person (shame) will be hard to talk about.  Anything which touches on doubts and judgments that you have about your self will also be difficult.   Yet of course, these are the very things that are important to talk about with someone who cares about you so you can find the balance between enough autonomy and not too much shame / doubt.  This is vital in developing the belief “I know what I want enough”, and the formation of the virtue of “will”.  Fear is a powerful motivator of action, but it tends to be short-lived and leads to exhaustion.  Will (and the desire it is associated with) is a less powerful motivator, but is a creator of energy rather than using it up, and leads to more long-term and sustained motivation.

Topics that are tricky to share with others probably won’t surprise you.  Doubt and shame associated with sex, the physical body, rule breaking (family, social, legal), and perceived failure of any type are high on the list.  Fear of judgment tends to lead to avoidance of talking or even thinking about such topics.

What can we do to help our child think about and talk about these doubts and shames?

We have to be cool and contained ourselves.  If we perceive a topic our child brings up as personally shameful, then our child will pick up on this actual shame and judgment, and will likely not share it (at least not with you, though they probably will seek out and find others who will talk about it with them).  We need to remind ourselves that just as we became our own person, our child needs to and will become their own person.  Expecting them to be or think or wish for certain things will likely lead to us being disappointed, and them experiencing shame from us.

Once we are cool enough, calm enough, and connected enough with our child, then the conversation is usually more straight forward and will hopefully result in both parent and child understanding each other, though not necessarily agreeing.  Then the plan forward can be discussed and negotiated, based not on how everyone wishes it was, but on how it is.  While your child is dependent on you, you have a certain amount of veto on their actions, though this naturally decreases as they age.  But for them to develop confidence in their autonomy, the more and sooner you can go with their decisions (if reasonable) so that they own them and learn from them, the better.