Emotional Conversations During Stressful Times

By Denise Montgomery

As large portions of the global population use prudent forms of social distancing and self-isolation to manage the speed and rate of Covid-19 pandemic flu, our usual forms of communication are not available to us.

We talk face-to-face less. We see fewer facial expressions and subtle social cues. Texts and emails omit emotional context. And yet we are feeling more emotions than ever.

Anxiety, frustration, stress, uncertainty and doubt about the immediate and long-term future build up–in homes that are now combination school/workplace/restaurant/laundry facilities.

And on the other end of the country, grandma feels worried and out of touch. It’s a perfect recipe for short tempers and miscommunication once everyone does have time to get on Facetime.

We are all having feelings right now. And thanks to Erna Solbergs, the Prime Minister of Norway, we also have a role model for talking about those feelings honestly and respectfully with children (of all ages).

How to acknowledge feelings on the way to constructive action

“Because of the coronavirus, everyday life has become very different for both adults and children. Anyone who can stay home should do it all the time. Many children find this scary,” Solbergs said in a 30-minute press conference held exclusively for young reporters from Norway’s schools on March 17, 2020.

“I understand that well. It’s OK to get a little scared when so many big things happen at once. It’s OK to be a little scared to get infected by the coronavirus. But for the vast majority of us, the coronavirus is harmless.”

In just a few sentences, Prime Minister Solsbergs modeled the kind of communication people of all ages need and welcome during times of extraordinary challenge.

Acknowledge valid feelings, including “negative” or difficult ones. In a situation that is objectively frightening and out of their control, children (and adults as well) need to process emotions before they can act in a calm, logical, reasonable way.

Direct attention to specific actions they can take that are within their own span of control.

Contextualize and offer facts to help keep the threat in perspective.

Feelings are facts and must come out

When we face real (or imagined) genuine threats, the human brain triggers a natural fight-or-flight reaction–which is emotional, not rational. As any parent will attest, it doesn’t matter whether the monster in the closet is real or not; a 4-year-old is afraid. Listening with genuine acceptance when she says she is afraid (without judgment) is the first step to helping her. She won’t be able to listen to anything else until you hear her talk about her fears.

A technique called active listening (or “mirroring back” feelings through listening and responding without judgment or advice) helps to validate feelings by replying in a way that indicates you have understood the emotion being expressed–without blame or shame.

How might this sound when talking to a teen about current emotions?

“I hear you, Madison. You’re really sad about the spring musical being cancelled. That was a lot of effort and you put in so much work. You were looking forward to it more than anything. This is your senior year and it’s unfair all this is happening now. It must be very hard for you and your friends.”

Compassionate active listening can be done anywhere, anytime. It can be done face-to-face, using technology, even in writing.

Unexpressed emotions can create larger problems

Ironically, trying to “manage” others’ emotions by blocking or preventing their expression can create a backfire effect, also known as “digging in heels.”

Distressingly, it is easy to invalidate another person’s emotions without intending to . Urging others experiencing strong emotions to “be positive,” offering “encouragement,” changing the subject, or deflecting can be just as isolating and emotionally harmful as sarcasm, warning, or threatening.

And the emotional costs of emotional invalidation are real. A 2017 study of more than 500 patients with rheumatic diseases, for example, found that patients who experienced more invalidation from those around them also experienced more feelings of loneliness.

As we enter a global period of uncertain duration that will include more physical isolation, it will be even more important to remember to choose our words carefully.

Twelve ways people may invalidate each other’s difficult emotions

The late human development psychologist, Thomas Gordon, developed a list of twelve ways people can (consciously or unconsciously) invalidate others’ feelings when they communicate. The Dirty Dozen can unnecessarily contribute to misunderstandings, hurt feelings, resentments, and can even create and escalate (rather than resolve) conflicts.


I know you’re such a generous and kind person, Madison. Even though you’re sad about the cancelled play, I’m sure you’ll be kind and generous and loving and patient and quiet and cooperative while Mom and Dad work from home.


“It’s not that bad. It will be OK. Everything will work out in the end and we’ll emerge even better than before.”


“Here; watch some cat videos. Hey, did I ever tell you about the time I got lost on the way to Tibet wearing my great-grandfather’s WW1 parka?”


“What makes you think you have any idea what’s about to happen? Why are you so worried? What are you afraid of?”


“Your grandparents went to war; you’re being asked to sit on your sofa. You can do this.”


“I think you’re just upset right now because…”


“You shouldn’t complain. What you need to do is…”


“If you’ll stop sulking, we can have some of the special ice cream I’ve been saving for Friday night.”


“What is wrong with you? Don’t you know everybody is in the same boat?”


“Stop that sniveling right now. Quit complaining.”


“I am sick and tired of this. If you keep this up you’ll have something to cry about.”


“Well, Somebody got up on the wrong side of the bed today. We’re all very sorry this sickness is personally inconveniencing you, Little Lady!”

We don’t all have to be the Prime Minister of Norway. We won’t always get everything exactly right. Nobody is perfect, and we will always make allowances for each other; that is what we do in difficult times as well as in good ones.

But we can also remember Erna Solsberg’s opening words to a room full of young people: “It’s OK to be a little scared when so many big things are all happening at once.”

16 thoughts on “Emotional Conversations During Stressful Times

  1. Nan Jo
    May 3, 2020 at 7:07 pm

    The photo is lovely. And another photo might be of the Elder Woman kindly comforting, listening to & reassuring the Younger Woman. Both ways are a blessing.

  2. Whitney Green
    May 10, 2020 at 7:02 pm

    In the article by Denise, she places the word “flu” at the end of “Pandemic COVID19 “.
    COVID19 not the flu.

    From Lisa Lockerd Maragakis M.D, M.P.H.

    “Influenza (the flu) and COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus that’s led to the current pandemic, are both infectious respiratory illnesses. Although the symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu can look similar, the two illnesses are caused by different viruses.”
    In addition =

    The speed of transmission is an important point of difference between the two viruses. Influenza has a shorter median incubation period (the time from infection to appearance of symptoms) and a shorter serial interval (the time between successive cases) than COVID-19 virus. The serial interval for COVID-19 virus is estimated to be 5-6 days, while for influenza virus, the serial interval is 3 days. This means that influenza can spread faster than COVID-19.The speed of transmission is an important point of difference between the two viruses. Influenza has a shorter median incubation period (the time from infection to appearance of symptoms) and a shorter serial interval (the time between successive cases) than COVID-19 virus. The serial interval for COVID-19 virus is estimated to be 5-6 days, while for influenza virus, the serial interval is 3 days. This means that influenza can spread faster than COVID-19.”

    Failure to differentiate the types of illness may lead some to under-react during this pandemic. That under-reaction caused by minimizing the COVID19/Coronavirus may lead to serious illness in some of the population. It may well cause some to avoid seeking help when they need to.

  3. Marlys larsen
    May 16, 2020 at 7:41 am

    I taught Parent Effective Training classes many years ago. The basic principle taught was Active Listening. : Listen to the emotion of the child and verbally acknowledge that emotion without expressing judgment. This is an effective method to deescalate the intensity of the childs emotions. . Sometimes the parents verbal responses may continue for a long time until the child manages to cool his/her emotions and realizes the emotions were actually recognized.
    Examples : Oh man, you are really afraid.
    Oh wow, this has really made you angry.

  4. Anonymous
    May 16, 2020 at 2:41 pm


  5. Jill
    May 23, 2020 at 1:50 pm

    Now let’s have some examples of how to best respond to repeated unhappy calls for help. Perhaps you can recommend some reading materials.

  6. Ann Riggs
    May 27, 2020 at 8:16 pm

    My husband may have lung cancer I’m not well we are in our seventies scary

  7. bjean melilli
    May 28, 2020 at 1:28 am

    this is true, but i have to admit some of the 12 bad responses were kinda pretty good. 🤣

  8. Marlys larsen
    May 30, 2020 at 4:18 pm

    Many years ago I taught Parent Effectiveness Training. This method used active listening skills.

  9. Carole Brinkert
    June 18, 2020 at 12:10 am

    Thank you, I thought that was a good read,and yes,I think we can all benefit from reading this, if we have others in our family

  10. Lovelace
    June 19, 2020 at 8:00 pm

    How about starting with what you CAN do? Sucky article that focuses on what one should NOT do without emphasizing alternatives…talk about a downer when something positive could be helpful!

  11. Anonymous
    June 23, 2020 at 4:43 pm

    Excellent , interesting & very helpful !

  12. DD
    June 23, 2020 at 8:00 pm

    COVID-19 is not a flu, it’s a virus. It is not the “COVID-19 flu.”

    Thank you.

  13. Carol Olson
    June 24, 2020 at 2:52 am

    Long but good read!

  14. Anonymous
    June 28, 2020 at 6:57 pm

    Alcohol, carbs. & sugar!

  15. Anonymous
    June 29, 2020 at 10:45 pm

    This is good stuff! I hope people take it in, digest it, and use what they can!

  16. Sheri
    September 11, 2020 at 12:41 am

    Please list what we CAN do and WHAT techniques and conversations are most effective. Providing only a list of what MOT to do is not helpful.

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