What Not to Say & When Not to Say It

When there’s a crisis, there are a set of rules that could fill a small library – a small, complex library with plenty of hidden shelves for the rules whose existence you have no idea about, until they are broken.

There’s a brilliant theory that deals with the unwritten rules around responding to people in a crisis. It’s one of those life tools that makes you grateful you were in the right place when it came your way – which I was, and which you now are now, if you want to be …

The theory is the brainchild of Susan Silk and it came about as a result of the way people responded during her own crisis. After surgery for breast cancer a colleague wanted to visit her. When Susan mentioned she wasn’t up to visitors, her colleague’s response was ‘This isn’t just about you.’

Perhaps right now, as I am, you are taking a sharp breath in. True, this response is ‘out there’ but there are plenty of subtle and not so subtle versions of the very same thing – people drawing on those more affected by a crisis than they are for support or a sound-off. One that happens far too much is the parent who leans on the child after a divorce or separation.

As Susan Silk explains, her theory – the Ring Theory – ‘… works for all kinds of crises: medical, legal, financial, romantic, even existential.’  Here’s how it works.

  1. First, draw a circle. This is the centre ring and in this circle is the person at the centre of the crisis (let’s call them the ‘centre-person‘). They can say anything they want – cry, complain, fall apart, lean on or break down – to whoever they want.
  2. Next, draw a circle around the centre ring, and another circle around that one and so on until you have a number of concentric circles, like a target. 
  3. Everyone in the centre-person’s life is then placed in one of the circles around the centre circle, depending on how close they are to the crisis. Those who are are closer to the centre-person will be in one of the circles closer to the centre ring. Less intimate relationships will be in the outside bigger circles. So in the next circle to the centre-person are the next most affected people and so on. 

There are no boundaries on what anyone can say. Just who they can say it to.

To use the separation example, the children have no control over the decision or the outcome and they will have trouble understanding their broken hearts and the changes happening at light speed around them. They are affected the most, so they are placed in the centre circle. In the circle around them are the parents. Next, maybe grandparents, or children who live with another parent. Next, maybe friends or siblings of the parents. You get the idea. 

In this instance – and remember it’s just an example – the parents must never look to the children for support, but they can look to the grandparents, siblings or friends – anyone in a circle that’s bigger than their own. The grandparents in this example must never look to the centre children or the parents for support but they can go to other siblings or friends. 

Everyone in the circles can say what they want to, whenever they want to, but only to people in the larger circles – never to people in the circles closer to the centre-person than theirs.

When speaking to anyone in a smaller circle, the goal is to comfort, love and support – whatever is needed. It’s important not to look to them for support though. They’re busy supporting themselves and those in the smaller circles to them. Don’t say anything even in the same land mass as ‘I’m really struggling with this,’ or ‘I’m just crying myself to sleep over this,’ or ‘This is really upsetting to me.’ Just. No. 

Also best not to give advice unless it’s asked for. Though the advice may be well-intended, people in a crisis don’t need to hear what they ‘should’ do. They’ll be having enough trouble doing very much at all until the crisis starts to clear. Until that point, let them know it’s fine if all they do for the time being is breathe.

If, when supporting someone through a crisis, you want to cry, scream, talk about the unfairness of it all or the awful things it’s dragged up for you, that’s absolutely fine and completely normal and healthy. Just do it to someone in a larger circle than yours.

The idea is a simple one – ‘Comfort in, Dump out’.

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Separation anxiety can come with a tail whip - not only does it swipe at kids, but it will so often feel brutal for their important adults too.

If your child struggle to separate at school, or if bedtimes tougher than you’d like them to be, or if ‘goodbye’ often come with tears or pleas to stay, or the ‘fun’ from activities or play dates get lost in the anxiety of being away from you, I hear you.

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The more we treat anxiety as a problem, or as something to be avoided, the more we inadvertently turn them away from the safe, growthful, brave things that drive it. 

On the other hand, when we make space for anxiety, let it in, welcome it, be with it, the more we make way for them to recognise that anxiety isn’t something they need to avoid. They can feel anxious and do brave. 

As long as they are safe, let them know this. Let them see you believing them that this feels big, and believing in them, that they can handle the big. 

‘Yes this feels scary. Of course it does - you’re doing something important/ new/ hard. I know you can do this. How can I help you feel brave?’♥️
I’ve loved working with @sccrcentre over the last 10 years. They do profoundly important work with families - keeping connections, reducing clinflict, building relationships - and they do it so incredibly well. @sccrcentre thank you for everything you do, and for letting me be a part of it. I love what you do and what you stand for. Your work over the last decade has been life-changing for so many. I know the next decade will be even more so.♥️

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Posted @withregram • @sccrcentre Over the next fortnight, as we prepare to mark our 10th anniversary (28 March), we want to re-share the great partners we’ve worked with over the past decade. We start today with Karen Young of Hey Sigmund.

Back in 2021, when we were still struggling with covid and lockdowns, Karen spoke as part of our online conference on ‘Strengthening the relationship between you & your teen’. It was a great talk and I’m delighted that you can still listen to it via the link in the bio.

Karen also blogged about our work for the Hey Sigmund website in 2018. ‘How to Strengthen Your Relationship With Your Children and Teens by Understanding Their Unique Brain Chemistry (by SCCR)’, which is still available to read - see link in bio.

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I often go into schools to talk to kids and teens about anxiety and big feelings. 

I always ask, ‘Who’s tried breathing through big feels and thinks it’s a load of rubbish?’ Most of them put their hand up. I put my hand up too, ‘Me too,’ I tell them, ‘I used to think the same as you. But now I know why it didn’t work, and what I needed to do to give me this powerful tool (and it’s so powerful!) that can calm anxiety, anger - all big feelings.’

The thing is though, all powertools need a little instruction and practice to use them well. Breathing is no different. Even though we’ve been breathing since we were born, we haven’t been strong breathing through big feelings. 

When the ‘feeling brain’ is upset, it drives short shallow breathing. This is instinctive. In the same ways we have to teach our bodies how to walk, ride a bike, talk, we also have to teach our brains how to breathe during big feelings. We do this by practising slow, strong breathing when we’re calm. 

We also have to make the ‘why’ clear. I talk about the ‘why’ for strong breathing in Hey Warrior, Dear You Love From Your Brain, and Ups and Downs. Our kids are hungry for the science, and they deserve the information that will make this all make sense. Breathing is like a lullaby for the amygdala - but only when it’s practised lots during calm.♥️
When it’s time to do brave, we can’t always be beside them, and we don’t need to be. What we can do is see them and help them feel us holding on, even in absence, while we also believe in their brave.♥️

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