When You Can’t Get Closure

How to move forward after conflict.

Posted Aug 15, 2018

Resolving a conflict is easy if both parties recognize each other’s perspectives. The acknowledgment of that understanding is a game changer. Authentic apologies for sentiments spoken in anger and frustration flow effortlessly if each person feels heard and understood regarding why they feel the way they do. In fact, the actual resolution of the conflict seems less important when both parties feel listened to and have acquired new insight about one another.

Yet, there are a number of people in the world who have trouble seeing an alternate perspective if it differs from theirs. Instead, they continually repeat their own perspective, refusing to consider the other party's viewpoint on the grounds that they are right and the other person is wrong. This is frustrating. Life is not black and white and neither are relationships.

Moreover, when one person attempts to understand the other person’s perspective and the effort to understand is not reciprocated, it causes frustration and escalates the conflict. Often, the individual who is unable to entertain a perspective that differs from theirs distorts and broadcasts the data they’ve collected during the conflict, attempting to paint the other party as the “bad guy.”

Thus, the conundrum. Not only is closure out of the question in this scenario, which zaps a person's peace for weeks, but a person is unfairly framed as the villain. In essence, one individual in the relationship is punished for daring to disagree and having an opinion/feeling of their own. Ugh.

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Many clients initiate therapy because they are stuck in this painful position. Good natured people who simply want to feel understood and are capable of truly putting themselves in someone else's shoes are left feeling ashamed, confused, angry, and alienated.

What should a person do?
1. Recognize the person’s character limitations and refrain from banging your head against the wall. Do not attempt to explain yourself any further because the other person will never get it. In addition, this person may distort this material and use it against you.
2. Accept that you will not get closure. This is the power that the interpersonally impaired person wields. They refuse to resolve conflict productively, intentionally leaving the other party feeling uneasy about it for weeks.
3. Distance yourself from this person. Do not sever the relationship, but rather keep the correspondence light and fluffy. Getting close to someone who is incapable of productively resolving conflict is like kissing someone with mononucleosis. It's not smart.
4. Invest in your own life. Continue moving forward. Cancel out the gossip the party spreads about you by putting love and compassion into the world.

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As a parent, raising a child who can resolve conflict productively is important. Be certain that during a conflict or power struggle, you are upholding the rules and expectations while acknowledging you understand your child's perspective. For example:

“I understand that you want to go to Jenny's lake house. You don't want to be the only one not going. I get it. It is super hard to feel left out. But Jenny’s parents are not going to be there the entire time, and if an accident happens, there is no adult there to help. You have every right to be mad at me, but I love you and it's my job to keep you safe.”

If a child experiences a parent understanding their perspective during a conflict, they acquire the ability to do it too. Understanding another person’s perspective, allows you to remain close to the ones you love and grow in ways you never thought possible.

Teens and Social Media

Teens are more susceptible to the negative impact of social media than other age groups because of 2 developmental vulnerabilities:

1)Identity formation— because of increased independence, a teen is trying to figure out who they are in the world. Naturally, when they are grappling with this issue, they instinctively compare themselves to others, which is a painful activity because there is always someone prettier, faster, smarter, etc. in the world.

Social media exploits this vulnerability in teens because it is an illusion. It’s a one dimensional snap shot in time that may convey the illusion of a perfect life, but it does not accurately depict reality. For example, the girl who received the perfect prom proposal, might be struggling with a chronic illness that no one is aware of.. The boy that just got the perfect sports car on his 16th birthday, might be secretly struggling with his sexuality.

What a parent can do:
Empathize with the worry about “measuring up” and explain the illusional
aspect of social media by saying, “It feels like everyone else has the
perfect life. I get that. It's hard. But, it's an illusion. Those kids have struggles too.”


“You worry about not being good enough. That's a big worry. I get it. But, it's not about what you achieve or what you have, it's about who you are, and you are a good person.”

Tip- always empathize with the feelings before reassuring or problem solving.

2)Peer Acceptance- because of increased independence, teens rely heavily on their peers for validation about who they are. This need can become a problem when they see their friends getting together or doing things without them on social media. The teen may feel extremely hurt and left out.

What A Parent Can Do:
Empathize with feeling left out, and let them know it’s happened to you too, then, remind them of the good friends they do have. For example, “It hurts to feel left out. I understand. I felt exactly like that when I was 16. How about calling Rachel? She seems like she might like to hang out tonight. Maybe I can take you guys out for some pizza.”

Tip: Parents should monitor social media and watch for cyber bullying. Because teenagers brains are more impulsive than at any other time in the lifespan, the risk of them being bullied heightens the chance they’ll do something impulsive when they are hurting.

You can find more information on how to be a parent your child and teen want to talk to in Dr. Leonard’s new book, “How To Raise A Secure Child, Parenting With Empathy.”

Seven Steps To Helping The Perfectionist Child and Adolescent

As a child and adolescent psychotherapist, I was invited to a local high school to speak to parents about perfectionistic kids. Kids who are obsessed with good grades, high GPAs, perfect performances, etc. Although these kids seem like dreamy kids from a distance—great grades, hard working, and well behaved, they are actually a handful. Ridden with anxiety about their next assignment, paper, quiz, and test, they stay up half the night, every night, studying after a full day of school and extracurricular activities. They are perpetually exhausted, rarely relaxed, and forever neurotic about their life. The price they pay is high because when they crack, they are a mess. Panic attacks, depression, and somatic complaints abound. Essentially, everyday is a crisis because their entire self worth depends on their next accomplishment. In their eyes, they are only as good as their next achievement. So, how does a parent a help? Understanding their developmental stage is a good start.

Steps towards independence force an adolescent to think about who they are in relationship to the world. Are they a good student? Are they funny? Are they athletic, artistic, musical, pretty, smart, popular, goth, punk, serious, etc. They have gobs of choices to make every day that dictate who they are and who they will be in the world. That is a lot of pressure. Suddenly, the child's focus shifts from caring about what their parents think to caring about what their friends and the outside world think. In other words, increased independence forces them to reconsolidate their identity, which is often referred to as identity formation. Developmentally, identity formation is the most difficult developmental challenge of the human lifespan. Basically, it’s the time in a human being’s life when they are required to figure out who they are in relation to the world, and the world is an overwhelmingly competitive and complicated place. Because teens are in the process of consolidating their identity, they are vulnerable because they don't know, for certain, who they are, which causes a great deal of self-consciousness, confusion, conflict, and uncertainty.

Also, because an adolescent's identity is not completely formed, they spend a lot of time fighting with themselves about who they are. After all, they thought they were smart, until they discovered there are 50 kids smarter than them in the 9th grade. Perhaps they thought they were artistic, until 2 other kids received the art award. So, the battle about who they are constantly wages in their head and it is exhausting. Many teens quiet the combat in their heads by relying on data from the outside world to inform them about who they are. For this reason, data from the outside world carries a great amount of weight. Yet, if the data is negative, for example, a bad grade or a rejecting friend, it can decimate the adolescent's vulnerable identity. In other words, it can leave the teen feeling like their world is crashing in on them because now they have no idea who they are.

Imagine for a moment that an person's identity has a structure. A teenager’s identity has a foundation and one or two support beams holding it up, but most of the structure is in the process of being built, so the structure itself is fragile. It is not strong or consolidated yet. An adult’s identity has many solid and stable support beams-- because an adult has had a tremendous amount of time to consolidate their identity. It is stable. The difference is substantial. So, if a rock is thrown at an adult’s identity, it might leave a dent or knock out a panel, but the structure remains intact. However, if a rock is thrown at a teenager’s identity, it might knock it down. So, there is the catch 22. Teenagers are looking for data from the outside world to help them figure out who they are, but sometimes the data is negative, like a bad grade, a lost tennis match, or a rejecting friend, and because a teenager’s identity is fragile, it can knock them down for a bit. Thus, many teens desperately try to avoid this pain by ensuring they achieve. Understanding their predicament is the first step towards helping them.

1.Empathize. Say, “Sometimes, Im afraid you feel like you are only as good as your next grade. That's hard. That's a lot of pressure. I get why you are so upset.”

“You are worried that you are not good enough. You need that A to tell you that you are good enough. I get it. I used to feel like that.”

“You need proof from the outside world that you are smart. I understand. You can't take my word for it any more because you have to know it for yourself. I understand.”

2.Validate character over achievement. Instead of waiting for a good grade to say, “good job,” try to acknowledge the hard work along the way. “You are studying so hard. I'm so proud of your effort. That means more to me than the grade you end up with.” Also, complementing them for being thoughtful, kind, and empathic should be more frequent than validating them for grades or achievements.

3.Instead of saying, “I love you.” Say, “I Love who you are.”

4. Tell them a compelling story about when they were very young. For example, maybe they risked their neck to save a baby bird, or stood up to a bully in preschool. Perhaps, they protected their little sister from an aggressive dog, or helped their Nana so she would not fall. Remind them of who they are. Anchor them with a story from their past which reflects their character.

5.Remind them that nobody remembers their GPA after the age of 20.

6.Tell them stories of professional athletes and celebrities placing character before achievement.

7. Model fun for them. Take a break from a work project and start a pillow fight with them or ask them to make slime with you while you watch Pitch Perfect Two. Laugh.

Contrary to popular opinion, achievement does not facilitate a child's sense of self. The child's experience of empathy is what helps a child develop a secure sense of self. After all, what a human being feels is the core of who they are. When a parent understands a child's feelings, they are validating who the child is. Raise a secure child. Parent With Empathy,
Dr Erin Leonard

How To Turn Your Child’s Disappointment Into Determination

Jimmy is a silly, skinny, blue-eyed, 9 year old boy, who barely tips the scales at 48 pounds. "I can practically spit through him," my dad says on a regular basis.

Although Jimmy showed promise on the house league baseball team last spring, his performance didn't cause anyone to spill their beer. When his BFF, Jake, a baseball prodigy built more like a tree trunk than a twig, announced he was planning to try out for an elite travel team, Jimmy jumped on the bandwagon. The try-outs were open and Jimmy wanted to sign up.

"Ugh," I thought.

"He'll get killed!" a neighbor gasped when he heard the news.

The line between setting a child up for success and protecting him from disappointment is hazy. A parent never wants to see their child hurt or disappointed. After all, it might lead to him quitting or giving up. Yet the alternative - attempting to shield him from life's inevitable sprinkling of disappointments - is not only impossible, it backfires.

In addition, if a parent incorrectly handles a child’s disappointment by denying him of the feeling and, thus, leaving him alone with his disappointment, the ramifications are significant-not only for the child but for the parent-child relationship as well.

I am both a child psychotherapist and a parent. I have not only helped parents with this struggle, but I'm also a player in the game. It’s not easy. A lineup of Do's and Don'ts helps.


Embrace disappointment

It is inevitable. Use it to help make your child strong and resilient. The most important thing you can do for your child is help them adjust to disappointment in a way that makes them stronger.

This creates resiliency in your child. A resilient child is well adjusted and happy.

Stay present

Have empathy. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment in time, and honor the disappointment. "You are disappointed. I get it. It hurts."

Let them know they are not alone

“I've felt the way you do lots of times in my life and it’s hard.”

Prove that you understand

Tell them a story about when you were disappointed. "I felt exactly like you do right now when I didn't get that promotion at work last year. It hurts."

Encourage them to keep trying

"Keep at it. It will come."

Always validate effort before achievement

Make it clear that working hard is more important than a victory, and really mean it.


Do not deny him of his feelings

Avoid statements such as "Don't be disappointed," "Don't feel that way," "Get over it," or "Life isn't fair."

When a parent is unwilling to listen or consider the child's feelings, the child will inevitably stop going to the parent when they are struggling. The question, "Why won't my child talk to me?" is never one you want to ask yourself.

Do not confuse sympathy with empathy

Feeling sorry for a child strips him of his self-efficacy. Sympathy tempts parents to enable. Do not call coaches, teachers, or instructors and demand they cater to your child or change what they are doing to benefit your child. This teaches your child to play the victim.

Do not lecture

Refrain from emotionally detaching and using reasons, logic, or rationalizations to explain the situation. Save this for after you have helped your child metabolize the difficult feeling through empathy. The chances are strong that you won't even need this step.

Jimmy tried out and was humiliated, and although I'm grateful he was not decapitated by a behemoth man-child throwing a 60-mile-an-hour fast ball, he was intensely disappointed. His self esteem was in jeopardy. I felt his humiliation, shame, and disappointment deeply.

Yet, I was amazed that he did not cry. He did not blame others or throw a fit. He, actually, didn't say much at all. I respected his need to not immediately talk about it, but I was warm, supportive, and loving.

That night when he was getting ready for bed, he came to me and said, "Mom, I'm not strong. I'm weak."

This was it. This was the moment, I thought to myself.

Softly and slowly, I said to him, "I know you don't feel strong or powerful, buddy, and that hurts. I get it. I have felt that a lot in my life too." Next I said, "Buddy, it took a lot of courage for you to get out there and try out. Honey, you are like your papa. You are brave, you are fast, and you are tough. Keep trying, buddy. It will come."

This spring, he made a travel team, and although he is benched for half of the innings, he is practicing, playing, and growing. Jimmy may be a twig, but he has a heart as big as a tree trunk.

Children who cannot handle disappointment, throw fits, quit, play the victim, and cheat. They are at risk for developing developing narcissistic traits. Helping them handle disappointment is as important as ensuring they are eating healthy and getting enough sleep. It is critical and will allow them to hit it out of the park in life.

How To Be A Parent Your Child Wants To Talk To

As a child therapist, the most common complaint I hear from parents is, “He just won’t talk to me.” Feeling estranged from your child can be painful for both you and your child. Research indicates the most important predictor of a child's emotional and psychological stability is the closeness of the parent/child relationship. If the child is not opening up when they are upset, the relationship is not as close as it needs to be.

There are two habits that parents’ routinely engage in that shut down communication and drive a child away: negating feelings and mistaking sympathy for empathy.

When a child is truly in distress because they feel hurt, disappointed, worried, or angry, they desperately need their parent. Yet, often, parents don't want to see their child feeling negatively, so their first instinct is to tell their child not to feel the way they do. Before they think, statements such as, “don’t be disappointed” or “don't be mad” escape. This results in the child feeling ashamed of how they feel, compounding the hurt. Moreover, the knowledge that their parent does not understand, leaves them feeling alone, which is detrimental. Basically, the child learns that opening up about how they feel makes them feel worse.

Examples of statements to avoid::
Don't worry
Don't feel that way
Don't be disappointed
Don't be like that
Don't be mad
You are too sensitive

A better idea is to empathize. Honor their feeling. Feelings are never wrong, it's what kids do with feelings that can get them in trouble.

Examples of empathic statements:
That's a big worry. I get it.
You are upset. I would be too.
You have every right to feel disappointed. I felt like that when I was your age.
You are mad. I understand. You have every right.
It hurts to see someone do something you want to be able to do, but can't yet.
You are mad. I'm sure you have a good reason. I want to hear about it.

After you give them a solid dose of empathy, the child feels understood and connected to you, which means they immediately feel better, and will want your help in problem solving. In many cases, the empathy is all they need to feel better. Simply knowing their parent understands, allows them to feel secure and forge ahead.

Here's how it works: Empathy creates good vagal tone in a child's brain and immediately calms them. The vagus nerve originates in the medulla, which is the part of the brain that controls the central nervous system. When there is good vagal tone, the entire central nervous system is soothed. Afterwards, they settle down and can logically think through problems with you. They also feel understood and close to you which allows them to forge ahead with a sense of security.

No parent wants a child that feels sorry for themselves, plays the victim, or is over dramatic, and maybe that is the fear that prevents a parent from being empathic. However, honoring their child’s feelings is actually what prevents a sense of entitlement or a victim mentality in a child. Sympathy, on the other hand, disrupts any chance of emotional attunement and tempts parents to enable. The parent saves and rescues their child from negative feelings instead of helping them work through difficult feelings.

For example, on the way home from hockey practice one night, Jimmy, my 8-year-old son, said to me, “Mom, I was the worst one tonight. I'm the worst one every night. I barely got put in.”

Now, I have 2 choices, the sympathetic response or the empathic response.

1)The sympathetic response is, “Poor guy, Im going to call your coach and talk to him. I don't think it's fair that he benches you for most of the practice.”

2) The empathic response is, “That hurts, kiddo. It hurts to feel like you’re the worst one. I get it. I've felt like that a lot in my life. It stinks. Keep at it. It will get better.”

In essence, the sympathetic response, tempts us to enable and ask that the rules be changed or concessions be made for our child, which teaches them to play the victim. Also, it requires no emotional investment on the parent’s part because the parent becomes the powerful saver and rescuer which strokes the parent’s ego. It is the easy way out.

The empathic response requires the parent shift from how they feel, to how the child feels. It's emotional attunement. It's the parent remembering how it feels to be the worst one at something, so they can relate to their child. It's selfless and it puts the child first, emotionally. When there is emotional attunement, the child feels understood, and connected to you, which allows them to feel secure and more able to forge ahead and try again. Empathy creates a rugged work ethic and resilience in a child. The child will thrive on adversity instead of breaking down when negative things happen. Empathy creates brave and strong human beings.

Stay close to your child. Empathize and empower. The reward will be priceless.

Sympathy Versus Empathy

Every school in the United States is battling a bullying epidemic. The compilation of nation wide surveys completed since 1986, indicate an ever growing trend of entitlement ingrained in America’s youth(Reuters 2010). Why? It is the result of parents continually and constantly confuse sympathy with empathy. When a parent incorporates sympathy instead of empathy, they tend to engage in enabling behaviors. Enabling behaviors instill a sense of entitlement in the child, causing the child to cry victim in order to excuse themselves from accountability. They readily blame/judge others, manipulating and bullying to get ahead, rather then working hard. Empathy, on the other hand, rarely requires rules be changed, expectations be lowered, or concessions be made for a child. Empathy is healing, in and of itself, and fosters children who are secure, resilient, and encoded with a solid work ethic.

The difference between sympathy and empathy may seem convoluted, but it is not and clarification is absolutely necessary if America is going to survive. Sympathy is equivalent to feeling sorry for someone. When a parent feels sorry for their child, they are tempted to “save and rescue,” which does nothing but strip the child of their self efficacy. Pity automatically puts the parent in a position of power in the interaction, disrupting any chance of emotional attunement( empathy). Feeling sorry for a child immediately compels a parent to save their child from the problem.

Empathy is entirely different. Empathy is allowing yourself to feel your child's hurt, which is emotional attunement. When a parent thinks about how their child feels and allows themselves to feel it too, and then honors the feeling, the child does not feel alone in their predicament. They feel understood and connected. This is healing in and of itself, creating resiliency and security in the child, as well as, closeness in the relationship. Bending the rules or shrinking expectations is never necessary.

For example, a mom is driving her 8 year old daughter home from tennis practice, when her daughter says to her softly and sadly, “Mom, I was the worst one tonight. I was the first one out every time. -- I'm pretty sure I'm the worst one every night.”

Now, this is the last thing the mom wants to hear from her child after a long day, and she realizes she had 3 choices.

1) Deny her daughter of her feelings(which is never ok) and say, “Oh no. You’re not the worst one. There are other kids worse then you.”

2) Sympathize with her and say, “You poor thing. I am going to talk to your coach tomorrow about this. He needs to change things. It doesn't seem fair.”

3) Empathize with her feelings and gently and lovingly say, “That hurts…. It hurts to feel like the worst one. --I get it. I have felt like the worst one a lot in my life, and it stinks.” Then, follow it with, “Stick with it, kiddo. It will get better. You'll get better.”

Of course, choice number 3 is the winner. The empathy prevented the little girl from feeling alone in her hurt. She felt understood and connected to her mom, which immediately allowed her to metabolize the hurt feelings and recover… Stronger and more determined then before. --True story.

The last caveat regarding empathy is that if utilized, your child won't be anxious. Studies in neurology have shown that when a child’s brain has good Vagal tone(the Vagus nerve originates in the Medulla, which controls the nervous system) they are calm, centered, and focused. Empathy creates good Vagal tone in a child’s brain(Sunderland 2016), allowing them to settle down and learn.

In essence, if parents want to end bullying and raise children with a rugged work ethic and strong character, parents must refrain from confusing sympathy and empathy. Love and love well. The results will be priceless.

Dr Erin Leonard

Back To School Anxiety

Helping Your Child With Back To School Anxiety

Major transitions are difficult for kids. Adults underestimate the anxiety a major change can arouse in a child. Although returning to school is exciting, it also induces anxieties that are sometimes difficult to quell. If a child is dealing with these anxieties on their own, they can intensify and interfere with the child’s ability to move forward securely.

Developmentally, kids have different worries at various ages. In kindergarten, the worries usually pivot around the separation from their parents. In the early grades, the anxieties are associated with getting stuck with a mean teacher or the difficulty of the new grade. The later grades trigger worries about having friends and being accepted, while the high school years can be packed with concerns about being good enough.

Of course, all of these anxieties correspond with appropriate psychosocial challenges. Yet if they are not attended to, they may cause a developmental lag, meaning the child regresses instead of moving forward confidently. Often, these regressions take the shape of temper tantrums, school avoidance, defiance, withdrawal, and aggression.

The recipe for helping a child with their back-to-school worries is simple. Contrary to popular opinion, it does not require elaborate discussions about feelings, nor does it necessitate the parent do any strategizing, fixing, or problem-solving. The requirements for raising an unanxious child include empathic listening and reassurance.

I am a child psychotherapist. This technique has produced both security and rugged confidence in my kids. And it is simple:

First, listen for worries.

Second, when you hear your child confess a worry – for example, “What if my teacher is mean?” – empathize with the worry. Say, “That is a big worry. I get it. I understand. I was worried about that, too, when I was in second grade.”

Third, reassure her by saying, “If that worry comes true, I will be here to help you through it.”

Telling your child not to worry about the things he is worried about is not effective because it leaves the child alone with the worry. Contrary to what many parents believe, a child’s worry does not go away because the parent tells it to.

In addition, if children do not feel understood regarding their worries, they will stop verbalizing them. The question, “Why won’t my kid talk to me?” is one that I hear from parents sitting across from me everyday. It’s also one that can be avoided.

Listen with an open heart, be empathic, and reassure your child that they are not alone.