What to Say Instead of, “Don’t Worry.”
Yesterday, schools in Los Angeles closed, due to what authorities labeled a “credible threat,” as described in this video by NBC News. And as a parent in Los Angeles, I take threats to my children’s safety very seriously. As I entered my children’s schools to pick them up, I had the opportunity to overhear interactions between worried parents, and frustrated administrators.
Some schools responded with flippancy.
As I stood in my daughters’ elementary school office, I observed an interesting scene. While parents arrived at the school to pick up their children, the overwhelmed office staff simply stopped responding to parents. The secretary wandered around the office wringing her hands and mumbling, “Why is everyone so worried? Didn’t you all get the voicemail from the principal saying not to worry?”
Parents, already strained with concern, became inflamed.
Because the office staff wasn’t calling their children, the parents decided to go through the gate and find their children themselves. Teachers commented that all this worry was reactionary and useless. And worse, they patronized parents in the hallways with unwanted instructions on how to talk about terror attacks with their children.
One mother simply told the teacher, “I’m taking my daughter home.” The teacher responded with, “Well, you should really consider that missing a day of school will affect her grade, and what kind of example you’re setting for her about the importance of education.”
I was astounded at the arrogance of that comment, but was too busy looking for my own twin daughters to see the parent’s reaction.
However, some schools responded with efficiency and respect.
One woman stood in the middle school office and spoke with the school counselor who was trying to persuade her to leave her child in school. The mother, clearly deeply concerned, but still speaking in a civil and controlled manner, asked, “Can you guarantee my son’s safety?”
The counselor took a deep breath, as if weary of the burden of politics that came with her job, and said, “No, I cannot. I hear your concerns and respect them. I’ve already called him and he should be here soon.” The mother’s tense body sagged with relief that she would no longer be asked to justify her concern for her son.
All through this experience, not once did I feel what I would call fear. I felt plenty of determination, and loads of dedication, and a hefty helping of love. But there was evidence all around me of fear.
Fear of the unknown. Everyone was concerned about what this meant.
In online forums and in-person parent groups, mothers and fathers talked about their feelings. Everyone had been told by at least one person to “stop worrying.” And that only intensified their feelings of anxiety and uncertainty.
So when something big happens, what can you say instead of “don’t worry?”
Here are four steps for how to offer true comfort.
First, you must examine your motives for offering comfort. Do you want to comfort another individual because you are uncomfortable with their discomfort? They’ll feel that, and they won’t trust that any advice coming from you is truly for their benefit. Because it’s not.
Second, you must listen. Listen without interruption. Listen without planning your next comment. Listen without assuming that the person in front of you is feeling anything other than what they’re articulating. Trust them to speak their own truth.
Third, respect that truth without trying to change it. Words like, “At least . . .” are minimizing. They communicate to someone that his or her feelings are somehow not what they should be. That really, they should be feeling a different feeling or a different level of feeling.
Fourth, validate that what the person in front of you is feeling is real and important. Words like, “wow,” “ohhh,” “that’s big,” or “that sounds really intense,” are not difficult. They let the speaker know that you will not judge their feelings, you will not try to change their feelings, and you will not take ownership of their feelings. You will simply stand with them while they feel their feelings.
Amazing things happen when you actively listen. The middle school counselor diffused a tense conversation by simply listening and respecting a mother. By so doing, she has strengthened the relationship between herself and the mother, between the mother and the school, and between the mother and son.
I wonder what the teacher in the elementary school hallway would think of the learning that occurred yesterday, outside of the classroom.
These four steps are so simple that even a child can do them. But consider how infrequently they occur in our society. People hunger to be listened to. People need to be listened to. Perhaps I am biased because I am a Doula, and listening is my number one job responsibility. But over the years, it has become more than a responsibility, it has become a mission.
What wonderful things could happen if we all listened intently.