Connecting with Challenging Kids by Leaning in to Discomfort

Off-putting behavior can make us feel awkward—but it's a message, an unintentional way that children and teens telegraph their emotional pain. When we lean in to that pain, the results change the conversation.

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“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” – Leo Buscaglia, author of Living, Loving and Learning’ (1982)

I (Mitch Abblett) have 20 years of clinical experience with a range of challenging clients, from teen sex offenders to combat veterans to teens at intensive residential and therapeutic school settings. I’m a licensed psychologist who’s spoken nationally and internationally—I literally wrote the book on mindful management of difficult clients.

And I couldn’t even start a conversation with my own daughter, only six years old.

As I gripped the steering wheel and caught glimpses of her as she sat in the back seat, munching away on a bag of stale popcorn, I found myself going stale as well—my courage for breaking open the possible Pandora’s box of her pent-up angst over her own challenges at school was getting the better of me again.

I’d spent decades stepping into minefields of complex and volatile topics in my clinical work, yet my fear of tripping the wires of pain and discomfort for my daughter (and for…