The man behind me at the grocery checkout was on his phone with his daughter—and clearly having a hard time getting a word in edgewise. “No, honey, I—” [pause as his daughter talks]. His voice rose slightly, as he tried to break in. “But I am listening, I just don’t think—” [another pause]. “Honey—” His voice rose even more, attracting the attention of others around us. He looked toward the cashier and me. “I’m sorry you’re upset, sweetheart, but I’m checking out at the grocery store, and I need to go.”
He ended the call, grinned slightly sheepishly at us, and nodded his head toward the phone. “She’s thirteen,” he said in explanation. “Drama queen.”
“Ah,” I said. “My daughter had plenty of those moments. It will get better.”
Suddenly his jokey manner slipped a bit. “I hope so. I have four girls.” He held up the phone. “She’s the oldest. And I have no idea how to handle all the drama.”
The female cashier finished my groceries and started on his, chiming in, “You don’t handle it! You just try to survive it!” The man bagging the groceries chuckled and threw in his two cents. “My solution? Man cave. My wife passed the drama gene on to our daughter. So when the tears start—with either of them—the only solution is to head downstairs and let the storm pass.”
I said goodbye and walked out to my car, wishing they knew that “just surviving” and withdrawing were not the only solutions—and that there were certain actions that would not only be much more loving, but would probably make them a hero to their loved ones.
So here are three things I wish I would have been able to say that day. These are from the research surveys for our books For Parents Onlyand For Men Only, among others, and are three super-simple steps that usually speak to the heart of a “dramatic,” upset person. (And because “drama” could be defined in lots of different ways, note what I’m tackling in this article is primarily how to handle the average child or adult who occasionally gets upset, weepy, angry, and so on, in a way that seems to be blowing things out of proportion and perhaps making things worse.)
Step 1: Start by assuming it’s a real issue
When someone is upset—whether it is a spouse, a daughter, or a son (yes, boys can have drama too!)—the one thing that is sure to make it worse is starting from the assumption that the person “shouldn’t” be so upset. That they are ramping up their emotions to a ridiculous degree. That they are being irrational and oversensitive.
As you can imagine, it rarely works to say something out loud like, “Honey, stop being an irrational mess. Let’s just calm down and realize that just because your friends didn’t include you in the ice cream outing doesn’t mean they don’t like you anymore.”
Has saying anything like that ever resulted in the tearful or angry person suddenly saying, “By Jove, you’re right. Thank you for your logic. I’m not upset anymore.”?
Just as it doesn’t work to say it, it doesn’t work to assume it—because you are essentially dismissing something that is clearly important to them.
Now, I should be clear: sometimes the person is being oversensitive. Sometimes they indeed are blowing things out of proportion! But in the moment, the worry or hurt or fear is real to them. And what you see as “drama” is often a cry to be heard. So trying to downplay it will make it worse, not better!
Step 2: Stay calm but warm
You might see the “dramatic” person as amping up the volume on their worry or outrage or weepiness, but if you want a true solution to the drama, you cannot do the same. Don’t get upset that they are upset (especially since, in some cases they may be subconsciously trying to draw you into the drama as well.)
Instead, it will make all the difference if you stay calm but warm. Notice that this is very, very different from coldly shutting things down or withdrawing to your “cave” (whether it is a man cave or a woman cave!) until the storm has passed. This means staying present, warm, and empathetic, but not agitated.
And, crucially, this pairs with what you do in Step 3.
Step 3: Listen to their feelings
One of the biggest mistakes made by a parent or a spouse of an upset person is to try to shut down the drama by shutting down the dramatic flow of feelings or by trying to quickly fix the problem that is causing the feelings. It may seem logical that stifling the feelings will stifle the drama, but our research found that trying to stifle the feelings will often make the drama worse.
It is very common for an upset teenager to tell a parent, “You’re not listening to me!” when the parent has been trying their best to listen and solve the issue. It is also quite common for a husband to hear, “I don’t want you to fix it, I just want you to listen!” from his wife. And what we found with surveys of thousands of people for For Parents Onlyand For Men Only, is that in both cases the person’s underlying need—what will often fix the drama—is to sense that their feelings have been heard. And the only way to do that is for someone to draw out and listen to their feelings about whatever is going on.
For example: “I’m so sorry that they got ice cream without you, honey. That must be hard. What did you think when you saw their posts about it?”
Now, it may alarm you to consider standing in front of a weepy teenage daughter and asking a question like that—after all, wouldn’t that make it worse? Won’t that be like throwing gasoline on a fire?!
I would have thought so, too! But instead, we discovered it is more like drawing poison out of a wound. As you say things like “how did that make you feel?” you are drawing out all those chaotic, turbulent feelings. And as you go, you will usually see the person begin to feel heard. They begin to relax. And at that point they’ll be more likely to want to talk about it if there is an external solution needed. (“Do you want to discuss how to handle it when you get to school tomorrow?”)
Although there will always be people who are addicted to drama (who these steps don’t work on, and which is beyond the scope of this article), in most cases the people we love mostly just want to feel heard. Try these three steps. If they consistently don’t work, you may need to put boundaries in place instead, so you are not captive to someone who truly just wants to create more drama. But if you see them work in the moment, consider this a skill worth building. A skill that also shows them love.
This article was also published at Patheos.
Check out our online resource for Shaunti’s research and teachings: SurprisingHope.com.
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