It’s 5:40 on Monday, and I can’t give my twitter feed a rest right now. I hate seeing what’s happening in my city, but I think that part that I find most upsetting is seeing how many backpacks I see attached to the shoulders and arms that are throwing rocks at cops. Those are kids. Those kids were in school a few hours ago.

Over the years I’ve known these kids. I’ve worked with them and I’ve gotta tell you, it’s tough. It’s really hard to shift an adolescent’s mind from a space of anger and resentment to reason and hope. I haven’t always been successful, but I have figured out something along the way. A good place to begin this shift is by helping a kid to find a voice.

“Riot is the language of the unheard.” – Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.Kids (and even some adults) are so removed from their own voice that they can’t even begin to recognize its own sound. Sometimes they don’t even know what, exactly, they think or feel – – so it comes out all messed up. This evening in Baltimore, it’s coming out as rage, but it could come out as anxiety, or social aggression, or obsessive behaviors, or any number of other ways that we have of telling the world that something is terribly wrong inside of us and we don’t know what to do with it. So, as a grown up (or beloved friend), here’s’ what you do:

name the feeling with a question.

It goes like this “I wonder if you sometimes feel like nobody is listening to you, or that what you have to say doesn’t matter to anyone, does that sound right?” Okay-this is actually a kind of scary thing to do, because it makes you vulnerable. You risk being dismissed, or laughed at for trying to get all touchy feely. Think of it as taking a shot for the team (you being on the team of reasonable and trust-worthy adults). You asking this question begins to open a door, and lets the other person know that as long as they are talking to you, it’s okay to talk about an unpleasant feeling. And, it’s surprising how often this invitation is taken up. I’ve gotten more yes’s than no’s when I ask if someone is feeling something. Advanced tip: Try to be really specific with the feeling- not just “do you feel mad?” but “does it feel like you’ve been belittled?” The nastier you make something sound, the easier it is for the other person to feel safe and understood, weird, huh?

but what if I guess the wrong feeling?

It doesn’t matter if you don’t get it right. The important part is that you asked. It starts a conversation; it lets the other person know that you’re open to talking and if nothing else, you managed to rule out one emotion. If someone (kid or adult) is feeling upset and confused, it can be overwhelming to be asked “how do you feel?”   Better to give a starting point.

“I wondering if you’re feeling like you haven’t been listen to”

“No- I know she heard me. She just doesn’t care!”

“So it’s more like you feel like she doesn’t think you’re worth listening to”

“Exactly. It’s like I’m nothing.”

Did you hear that? “How do you feel?” is unlikely to get a “feels like I’m nothing” response. To get to the real feeling, you have to do some digging. Keep asking questions.

OMG — what if I get in too deep?

See, the first reason why we don’t ask these questions is because we don’t want to be laughed at. The second reason is because we’re scared we are going to open a Pandora’s box of emotion and then not know what to do with it. Truth is, once a feeling is voiced it’s kind of like letting the air out of a balloon. All the anger and confusing that were working so hard to mask that emotion start backing out of the room at this point. So really, all you probably will have to do is say “That sounds really hard” and offer a tissue.   Letting someone cry is one of the greatest gifts you can offer. Do that.

If, however, you happen to uncover something that worries you and you feel like you’re in over your head, take a deep breath, thank them for trusting you, and then find some other help. Google a hot line (here’s one, just in case: (410) 433-5175 or, ask your doctor, you can even email me in a pinch. Whatever you do, know that by giving someone the space to really voice a feeling, you’ve already done a world of good.

Dr. King told us “Riots are the language of the unheard.”

Baltimore, it’s time to listen. Every one of us.