Jessica regretted wasting her entire life. She had a horrible relationship with her two wonderful parents. She had done poorly in high school, and now had few skills to get a meaningful job. She had been in a myriad of poor relationships with guys, leaving her feeling used and worthless.
Regret is a powerful and potentially destructive emotion, particularly coming from a 17-year-old.
I tell kids that their emotions are messages. They are not good or bad, although they can leave us with feelings ranging from delight to depression. They are to be carefully considered and deciphered, but you need to be careful not to let negative feelings inhabit your soul.
Regret can be a particularly heartbreaking emotion. The challenge is to understand your feelings in such a way so as to empower you to act, rather than respond with despondency.
Many parents voice regrets when talking about their adult children. They wonder what they might have done differently to have avoided raising unhappy and disturbed young adults. Maybe they should have given their kids more attention, or maybe less attention. Perhaps they were too lenient, or too strict. If only they hadn't moved around so often. If only they hadn't gotten a divorce.
I don't encourage either kids or parents to stay in that regret space very long. Here's how to use regret in a helpful way.
1. Understand the basis of your regret. Neither deny your feelings nor let them overwhelm you. Life doesn't come with a rewind button. You can't relive past events. Even if you could, there is no guarantee that things would have turned out differently. Looking through the rear view mirror of life is only helpful if it provides some guidance as to what you can do differently today.
2. What have you learned? For the teen who had regrets about her low grade point average in high school, our focus was on what was learned from that experience. Yesterday's regrets will only go away if you change today's behaviours.
I've found that many kids -- and their parents -- like to live in the past as a way to avoid making changes today. That's called despondency, not therapy.
3. Can you make restitution? You can't change yesterday, but sometimes you can take helpful actions to make up for previous mistakes. I've had kids write letters of apologies to parents or volunteer at some organisations.
Did you act like a jerk during your divorce, and now want a better relationship with your ex for the sake of your adult kids? You'll be amazed what a short note of acknowledgement may do for that relationship.
Dr. Gregory Ramey is the executive director of Dayton Children Hospital's Pediatric Center for Mental Health Resources. Email: Rameyg(at)childrensdayton.org.
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