Growing up comes with plenty of intense emotion – sometimes good, sometimes not so good. The emotional exchanges that come with the territory provide important opportunities for kids and teens to learn and experiment with ways to relate to the world.
One of the ways life seems particularly intent on teaching its lessons is through relationships. We want our kids and teens to develop their own curious, independent minds and to find their independence. It’s all part of the healthy transition into adulthood. With this healthy transition comes conflict – healthy doesn’t necessarily mean easy. As with anything difficult though, the opportunities to grow, learn and flourish come as part of the package.
Stopping the triggers for arguments can be difficult – we don’t always see them coming. There is, however, a way to lessen the fallout and teach a valuable skill that will hold kids and teens strong in their relationships and their life moving forward.
The skill is called ‘stepping back’ and involves mentally stepping back from your own point of view and looking at the situation as an observer, rather than as a participant. Research has shown that it’s an effective way to deal with negative emotion and conflict.
In a recent study, researchers asked 226 participants aged 11-20 to recall a recent situation that upset them (such as an argument). The degree to which participants had ‘stepped back’ was assessed by asking, ‘When you saw the fight again in your imagination a few minutes ago, how much did you feel like you were seeing it through your own eyes versus watching the fight happen from a distance (like watching yourself in a movie)?’, and ‘When you saw the fight again in your imagination a few moments ago, how far away from the fight did you feel?’
Those who were able to step back from the experience when they reflected on it experienced less emotional distress than those who didn’t. Those who stepped back:
- thought about the experience differently,
- were able to reflect about the situation in such a way as to gain meaning and insight;
- were less likely to replay the situation over and over in their minds (rumination – thinking about things over and over has been found to be a risk factor for depression);
- were less likely to blame the other person.
Mentally stepping back from an upsetting situation is a healthy, adaptive way to deal with arguments and conflict. The power of this strategy increases with age. The older someone is, the more effective the stepping back is in diluting high emotion.
Previous studies have shown that children as young as the fifth grade are able to effectively use self-distancing strategies to control their emotions.
Stepping Back. It’s like this …
Imagine you have your face pressed up to glass. It’s cold, hard and clear and you’re squeezed so tightly against it that you can’t see anything else. You know that somebody else is looking at the same thing as you but they aren’t describing what you’re experiencing. Like you, they’re using words like ‘cold’ and ‘hard’, but they’re also describing it as ‘yellow’ and ‘metallic’. As in ‘not glass’.
Tempers get flared because neither of you can understand why the other is doing this. Clearly (according to you) this thing you’re pressed up against is glass. It’s clear and see-through and seriously, how can anyone think otherwise. According to the other person though, you’re missing something because clearly what you’re both looking at is yellow metal. Hard, yes. Cold, yes. Clear, no. Glass, definitely not. You roll your eyes and wonder about the sanity of the fool who could possibly confuse clear glass with yellow metal. Or maybe this other someone is just being difficult and spoiling for a fight.
Then you both take a step back. Maybe two steps back. Ahhh, now you get it. You were both squeezed up against the same yellow car – but you were seeing it from different perspectives. Because you were both so close up, there was no way to see the big picture and each other’s point of view was lost.
All conflict is like this.
Stepping Back – How do I do it?
Stepping back can be hard to do in the heat of battle. In the midst of intense emotion, there’s a strong tendency to believe, with gladiatorial heart, that we are right and that others misunderstand, are mistaken or are straight out wrong.
Timing is important. Asking anyone to step back when the battle is volcanic probably won’t work so well. Try this instead:
- Let the other person know that you want to keep talking but that you want to take some space to pull your thoughts together so you can talk about it and hear each other more effectively. It’s important to let them know you’re coming back and not just walking away.
- When you are able, come back together. Begin with something like this, ‘Can we try something? I think both of us are a bit right about this, and maybe both a bit wrong, but I want to understand things better from your side. I’d also like to see if you can see things a bit clearer from my side. Can we think about what’s just happened as though it’s a movie? Can we take a step back and think about it as though we’re watching it as it happens and not acting in it?’
- Next, be the one to lead the conversation about what you’ve learnt from doing this. Be vulnerable and open and you’ll invite the same. Talk about what you saw happening for both of you in the situation when you watched it from a distance. What new meaning did you discover? Did you come to any awareness about the intentions, experience or feelings of the other person? About your impact? About the way you both might see the situation differently? About the the things you didn’t see as clearly before? How do you understand the experience from the other person’s point of view?
The establishment of independence from childhood to adolescence, and from adolescence to adulthood, often brings conflict – it’s completely normal. As the adults in their lives who love them, this conflict can be difficult to understand and even more difficult to be on the other side of – breathtakingly so. It’s an important part of growing up though and brings with it the potential for insight and wisdom about how to relate to the world effectively. It’s all part of them shaping themselves gently towards adulthood, with independent minds and healthy relationships built largely from what they’ve learnt from you along the way. When they get there – which they will – it will be worth it.
This is a neat perspective. I usually use the word “empathy” in situations like this, but I really like that you used the phrase “stepping back.”
It’s not always easy to know what empathy “looks like” in practice. So, this is a great visual cue. I’ll definitely try to use that language more.
Thanks Jade. Empathy can be such an abstract thing can’t it – but such an important one.
The whole concept of “stepping back” is a wonderful tool I think that could and should be applied to all ages and all conflicts and discussions. So often in our desperate effort to make sure that we’re being heard we fail to see the whole picture and the other person’s position.
So true Amanda. Sometimes the best way to have influence is to listen.
Private schools have begun to discuss, even practice, the teaching of leadership skills in school. Have you any opinions on this, any guidelines for schools and/or teachers, what about parents?
It’s great that schools are talking about leadership. I’d love to write more about it – leave it with me
Great article….I have been talking to my local school district about incorporating lessons as such in their curriculum but I’ve been told it’s the parents job to teach this. In today’s world where we have “snowplow” parents it is becoming more difficult to teach life long lessons that will give our children more coping skills and emotion management.
Thank you! I so agree that it would be great if this could be taught in school. I know teachers already have such a massive job to do but I think it could make such a difference. You can be the best parent in the world but there’ll be times when kids will hear things differently (and more readily) from someone else. Takes a village!
This is an excellent article. I am glad to find such useful, thoughtful articles on your email newsletter. I hope working some of the suggestions on how to step back into our daily conflicts will enhance some of what we’re already practicing in our busy household.
I’m so pleased you’re finding the articles helpful. Thank you for letting me know!