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Style Magazine

Seen and Heard

Jun 29, 2012 04:50AM ● By Style

When couples come to me for individual or marriage counseling, they’re usually feeling discouraged and hopeless.

While each person is unique, I’m still amazed how the same emotional and relational themes show up time and time again. When couples begin to feel heard and understood they often begin to experience relief, even before there has been significant change; understanding these themes begins to give hope for change. It isn’t that simple, but I want to highlight the significance of “being seen and heard.” The following questions are loosely based on themes I frequently see in my practice and don’t reflect any one specific couple or individual.

Q: My wife seems to get angry over the smallest problems. The other day she flipped out because we had overage charges on our phone bill. Money is tight right now, but we have what we need. How can I get her to calm down?

BOB: Her anger may merely be a “secondary emotion,” masking what she’s really feeling, or the “primary emotion.” Simply put, secondary emotions, like anger, are often responses to primary emotions, like fear. If she’s not self-aware or struggles expressing herself, anger may be how she experiences fear. You’ll find that empathetically addressing her fear directly is more effective in calming her anger, soothing her anxiety, and will help you resolve problems together.

Q: Our normally “bubbly” elementary-aged daughter has been coming home from school with a sour attitude. She sulks and gives a whiny grunt when asked questions. She likes her teacher, has excellent grades, and as far as we can tell isn’t having conflict with other kids. My husband shrugs it off as the beginnings of normal hormones, but I’m not satisfied by this explanation. Am I just a “worrywart,” or should I be concerned?  

Bob: I always recommend listening to your gut. Children can’t process or express their emotions like adults and tend to either “act in” or “act out” when they are in distress. Even though she seems to be functioning normally, her behavior sounds increasingly withdrawn, and you seem to be picking up on an underlying mood, which I’ll call acting “in.” This is a common symptom of depression in children, and a visit to a therapist can help you determine if there is a little problem, or a big one. Catching childhood depression early is important as it significantly impacts social and educational success, self-esteem and emotional health.

Q: My husband’s always harping on our 19-year-old son about getting a job and his grades, which inevitably leads to a fight between us. Our son talks to his dad about girls and sports but only talks to me about school or his future. He’s a great kid, so I’m concerned his dad is too hard on him and will do more harm than good. How do I get my husband to lay off?                         

Bob: Rather than resisting your husband’s involvement, step back and let him have his own relationship with your son, without acting as a buffer. You won’t always agree, but it’s more important to be a united front for your son, while maintaining the individual relationships. Moms are great at protecting and nurturing their sons, but dads teach their sons how to be men.

Bob Parkins is a licensed marriage and family therapist. He can be reached at 916-337-5406, [email protected] or