Words are just words is one of the strategies used in the Multilevel Emotion Regulation Theory (MERT)  developed by Simone de Hoogh.

“I came home after work with the groceries. The children were still home because of Covid-19, the kitchen and the living room were a mess, and I asked my daughter (15yrs) – and to be fair there might have been a bit of irritation in my voice – could you please tidy the room a bit. My daughter jumped up from the sofa and shouted, filled with anger, ‘You f….. bitch, you just hate me because I am ugly!” while smashing the door so hard the plaster fell down. It felt like a slap in my face and I burst into tears desperately wondering what I had done wrong that she felt like that.”  Helen, mum of two teens and one child

Taking it personally?

First off, whenever a child, and I include teens, says something that is not appropriate or not kind, recognise it for what it is, the child or teen is expressing they are feeling lousy and it doesn’t reflect in any way on our bond or on our parenting, it does not say anything about us. 

If we tend to take their words personally we will react to their words too seriously, which kind of confirms to them it might be true what they are thinking or saying. 

We can get caught up in our own emotional reactions to their words, especially when it also triggers in us feelings of unsafety leading to the need to control either others or ourself, which creates the false sense of safety that we can at least control something! This is called the Cycle of Emotional and Sensory Overload, which keeps us from being strategic and from paying attention to our genuine feelings.

When feeling overwhelmed and triggered most of our emotional reactions will be stress-response related, so we might become overly critical, defensive, roll our eyes or be sarcastic, or just not react at all ir order to cover up the very uncomfortable genuine feelings in the emotional pot underpinning the non-genuine feelings. 

To combat this, we refocus on what the genuine feelings in the emotional pot are, beneath the reaction the words of our child/teen/tween have triggered. If we notice we are in a stress response , it is time to focus away from the child and nourish our own energy and emotional resilience – our Baseline.

Still figuring it out

Knowing how to communicate effectively and being able to reliably predict how others are going to react is an important skill that children and teens have to learn while growing up.

So let’s keep in mind our children/tweens/teens are still learning to get a better grip on communication and often say things, use words, just to see what our response will be. They then compare it to how others have reacted, which enables them to  explore the connection between real life, emotions and words. This serves to enlarge their knowledge about the different types of ‘true’ meanings of words, which can differ not only across different cultures, but also across age groups and socio-economic status. These experiments in communication help them to figure out social dynamics, such as what is the emotional load in which group, what is being communicated, etc. 

What’s happening?

In the example above with the daughter, Helen might have reacted seriously because she felt triggered. She might have tried to find a way to debunk the ideas of her daughter as quickly as she could.

In doing so, Helen would not have been taking into account that she herself was probably in a stress response, which would have been enough to trigger a stress response in her teen.

Helen might have said something like: “No I do not hate you and you are not ugly, you’re beautiful!”

Her daughter might have answered: “What do you know, you’re ugly too!” 

At this point, Helen might feel disrespected and overwhelmed by the situation, which will trigger her teen daughter to react to her overwhelm and before they know it they might have entered the argumentative talk domain (soon more about how to stop argumentative talk) heading towards a shouting match.

When we take our child’s words seriously or literally, the words seem to acquire more reality and weight. This can lead to a child or teen feeling confirmed in their suspicions or false fears about themselves.

Different ways of reacting

Mum Helen is aware that she has been triggered by the reaction of her daughter and withdraws. She lets go of the idea she has to act NOW, as that is part of the fight stress -response and likely to lead to an escalation. Helen knows that she and her daughter are not feeling too good right now, and that it’s better to keep their distance until she herself has the energy to be emotionally independent. Helen reminds herself she has all the time in the world and refocuses on strengthening her own baseline, she takes a bite to eat, a drink, does a meditation, listens to music. There is no hurry!

When she feels rested and calm she can decide to strategically take action, or maybe even wait until tomorrow.

Puberty is a bitch

It’s clear Helen’s daughter is feeling ‘bad’  about something, it might be perhaps that she was already feeling guilty about the mess in the living room, so mum’s remark pushed her button. Or maybe she is feeling bad because she hasn’t done her homework, or just feeling low in general because of hormones – puberty is a bitch! 

Helen’s daughter’s most familiar thinking pattern – being a teen, self conscious, not feeling safe, not knowing who to trust and even doubting herself constantly – tells her it must be because of herself. And what she is saying is a repetition of her most common thoughts that pop up when she feels lousy. Common concerns amongst teens is to not belong – translated into feeling hated – and fear of not being good enough – translated into ugliness. 

How we can react

If we have the energy, we can react to the genuine feelings that are going on beneath the words: the fear of not belonging and not being good enough. 

We try to be as vague as we can to prevent argumentative talk about the content of what we are saying.

We might say: 

“Ooh sweety, you must feel lousy, otherwise you would never say something like that. Come here you need a cuddle,” and say “I love you and am so glad you’re in my life.” And if you or she is uncomfortable with a cuddle, you can offer a cup of tea instead or squeeze their hand.

Reacting like this is showing that she’s worthy of love and acceptance, we love her no matter how she feels or what she says, and that if she focuses on her baseline she will feel better. Oxytocin, the cuddle hormone does do wonders, but if your child or teen won’t accept a hug try inviting them for a cup of tea and sitting beside them, pressuring to their sides, or a huge loving smile, a swirly dance around the room in which you might hold hands,  with a confirmation they are worthy  e.g. “I’m so glad you’re in my life.” 

Expressing you are emotionally independent of the doom and gloom your child/teen experiences right now, you are just happy they are in your life, will do just as well.

How we can repair

The next day Helen sees her daughter in the hallway and says casually:  

“Sorry for overreacting yesterday, I was quite tired,” and walking away “Would you like a cuppa?” 

This way she models that everyone sometimes loses their calm, and it’s not the end of the world we just say sorry and that’s it and we get on with life again and drink tea together and talk. In saying that she overreacted because she was tired, Helen is also conveying that her own upset wasn’t caused by the daughter. The incident might have triggered her reaction, but the feelings of despair and overwhelm were already present in mum, otherwise she wouldn’t have reacted. (If you would like to understand more about why we mums feel so triggered by our own overreactions, read When we are lost and how to repair connections – PowerWood)


Besides loving care, cuddles if appropriate, and non-verbal and outspoken confirmation of their worthiness we can also explain to our child that they have a lot of ‘gap/growth potential’ energy, where they feel they are falling short of their ‘ideal self’.  Only one third of people have these negative feelings about self, so it is gold dust, it is the drive to improve ourselves and the world, and they can use that energy to grow towards their ideal personality. 

© Simone de Hoogh 2020

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