Minimization is “leaky” denial. In many ways, minimization is more difficult to deal with than denial because a youngster can minimize for 50 years.
There could be a couple of reasons why a child or teen would minimize the impact of an emotional event. It could be a way to avoid looking at or discussing painful stuff. If a parent or counselor puts off discussing the issue because the youngster minimizes it, the issue could fester to the youngster’s detriment.
A Handy Defense
There is another possibility. Youngsters who feel they MUST remain tough and bulletproof (difficult and defiant youngsters, and a lot of adults, often fall into this category) feel they can’t afford any emotional “baggage” that pulls them down. Denial and minimization are their handiest defense against what they perceive as yet more pain and vulnerability. Why? Because, different than adults, kids often feel that, if they talk about what bothers them, it gets worse. So they say nothing. The processing of pain in order to get through the issues is a luxury most youngsters don’t understand completely. Our job is to help them understand.
It has always amazed me just how surprised youngsters are when they get an authentic glimpse of the power of whatever is bothering them.
Getting at the Truth
Here’s an example. I was doing group therapy at a residential treatment center one day. In the circle with me were about a dozen emotionally disturbed adolescent females. One girl was asked if it bothered her that her mother refused to keep her shortly after adopting her. (The girl tried to burn the house down; it wasn’t exactly a way to show gratitude to a new parent.)
“Not really,” she replied. “It doesn’t bother me much at all.”
“Sandy,” I said (not her real name), “does it bother you this much?” (I reached for a chair and patted the seat.) “OR DOES IT BOTHER YOU THIS MUCH?” (I screamed it out and hit the seat with both hands, full force.) After we all recovered our wits, and after I assured the secretarial staff in the other room that they didn’t need to call in the National Guard, we discussed minimization.
That remains one of my best therapy sessions, EVER.
Okay, so you might not want to be quite this dramatic, especially with your own children. How might we move into the discussion of minimization with a child or teen? Try starting with a question like, “When someone asks you how you’re doing today, are they usually expecting a certain answer?” Most folks are looking to hear something like “Fine,” regardless of how they really feel, aren’t they? Share with the child that genuine courage and the sincerest communication involve telling the truth, but truth that is communicated in an honest and thoughtful manner.
Although a nationally recognized child and adolescent psychologist, author and speaker, Dr. James Sutton deeply values his first calling as a public school teacher. Today he is in demand for his expertise on emotionally and behaviorally troubled youngsters, and his skill for sharing it. Dr. Sutton is the founder and host of The Changing Behavior Radio Network, a popular internet radio program supporting young people and their families, and every month he publishes The Changing Behavior Digest, offering tips on managing difficult children and teens. Both resources (and others) are available at no cost through his website, http://www.DocSpeak.com.