Imagine this: your girl didn’t make the cut for the team, or is having drama with a friend, or isn’t feeling well and has to miss a birthday party. Whatever the issue is, she’s upset, and you’re trying to console her when she lashes out with a tried-and-true clapback: “You don’t understand!”
And although you might think you understand—perhaps you even had a similar incident happen to you when you were her age—telling her that you know how she feels isn’t going to do much good and could actually just make her feel worse in the moment.
You may have gone through trials very much like those your girl is going through now, and you and your daughter might even be a lot alike. But no two people experience or react to life’s ups and downs in the same exact way. The simple fact that she’s her own person, regardless of how much the two of you share, means that only she knows how she feels. Plus, your girl is growing up in a drastically different time than you did (the world is so different now than it was even five years ago!), and all kinds of factors, from nearly constant social media connection to a more in-your-face news cycle can affect how your daughter views each situation she’s experiencing.
Of course you might have an idea of what she’s feeling, but that’s different from truly knowing how she feels, and the difference is actually pretty significant. “If your daughter is upset and trying to express herself, only to hear you say you already understand because you’ve been there, done that—she’s may feel that you’re not truly hearing what she has to say,” says Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald, Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist. “In such situations, it’s only human to try to relate to what someone else is going through, and it comes from the best of intentions. Saying you know how she feels is an attempt at empathizing and can even be thought of as a way to guide your daughter toward a solution that you think might work for her. Still, that can backfire and make your daughter think you’re minimizing her emotions or that you’re somehow making the situation about you, which isn’t helpful—especially at an age when she’s trying to cement her own identity and unfortunately might not love being compared to her parent or caregiver.”
So if she’s already gotten to the part where she says “You just don’t understand,” the best response is actually to say, “You’re right. I don’t know, and I’m sorry. I do know this stinks, though, and I want to hear more.” Then, in future situations, take the time to step back and listen to what she has to say rather than telling her you already get it. Try saying something like, “You seem angry/upset/sad, can you tell me more?” or even “I had a similar experience when I was a girl, but I know this is different. How can I help?” Then, give your daughter the space to explain how she’s dealing with the situation, what she thinks is important about it, and how she’s feeling about moving forward.
“Simply knowing she’s been heard and that you want to understand her life can provide comfort,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald. “Not every situation has a quick fix, which can be frustrating to parents who want to help, but simply being there and making sure she gets to explain herself on her own terms without having her feelings likened to yours or dismissed can go a long way.”