I often hear from parents of teenagers a very similar story that starts “I thought there was something bothering her, but she wouldn’t talk about it. Then, we were in the car and….”
My name is Helen, and as a Clinical Psychologist, I hear this story regularly. It appears this is well known among experienced parents of teens. If they won’t talk, take them for a drive and then ask. Even younger children sometimes open up during the drive to a club or activity in a way that they won’t when asked a direct question ‘on dry land’ as it were.
Why? Why is it that talking in the car is easier? You’d think it would be distracting, having a parent concentrating on the road, not giving you their full attention, having things happening outside the window that might draw your eye and stop the flow of conversation for a while. But I think this is actually the key to its success. If you are sitting in a car, whether in the front passenger seat or the back, you can’t make direct eye contact with the driver very easily. You aren’t sitting face to face with them and so the interaction feels less confrontational. Having something else to hold a bit of your attention takes the pressure off. As the person doing the talking or the revealing, it takes the direct spotlight off you and means you are a step removed from that pressure. If things feel overwhelming, you have an easy excuse to just pause, comment on something else, or take a moment to collect your thoughts.
I also think there is something about the ‘dual attention’ of talking whilst something else is going on that for me feels similar to what happens in therapy, particularly in EMDR or in more active, shared practical therapeutic tasks like making models or drawing. When something difficult is being brought to mind or talked about, it can feel uncomfortable and overwhelming. If your full attention is given to it, it can ‘flood’ you with the associated emotion and it can feel unmanageable. But if it only takes up a part of your attention, if something else occupies just enough of your mind to allow it to tolerate that emotion for a little bit longer, sometimes it allows you to think about and access those thoughts and feelings for long enough to do something about them. The shared attention can make the intolerable or too big feel just tolerable enough.