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How to weather the emotional storms of your teenager... without losing your cool!

In her book Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood, psychologist Lisa Damour has identified seven tasks that adolescents are all trying to work through in order to reach adulthood. She says that adolescence is a period characterized by rapid and uneven development. When one or more of these tasks get interrupted, it may suggest that this is a child who needs a little more attention, and could possibly use some formal intervention. Understanding these seven tasks can help parents know what kids are going through, to know when kids are being normal and need our support as they do their job of becoming an adult, and to know when it really is time to worry.

For the next few months, I will be writing about each one of these tasks, exploring what a child looks like as they are moving through the tasks; why the task is so important; what kinds of behaviors might suggest that a child is really struggling with a task; and what a parent might need to do about it.

TASK 3: Harnessing Emotions

The brain of the teenager begins a major neurological overhaul at puberty to get ready for the demands of adulthood. During this time, the “feeling centers” of the brain are much more sensitive than at any other point in life, resulting in extreme emotional fluctuations and sudden intense feelings. The overhaul begins in the lower parts of the brain, and ends with the calming, rational frontal cortex, making that part the very last to fully develop, which doesn’t happen until the mid 20s!

This results in sudden emotional explosions in teens, who may quickly fluctuate from one extreme to the other in a short amount of time. These abrupt changes can take us parents off guard, often causing us to react intensely ourselves, and sometimes without the results we’d hope for. 

In fact, all of this emotional upheaval allows teens the opportunity to learn how to harness their emotions in socially appropriate ways. It’s an important time for young people to explore these feelings, learn how to be comfortable with them, and how to express them in order to grow healthy relationships.

Parents as the Emotional Dumping Ground 

It’s actually pretty normal for parents to feel like they’ve become “the emotional dumping ground” for their teens. They’ll use you to unload feelings that they’ve been sitting on all day, often complaining to you about a whole host of worries and frustrations that feel are sooo important and meaningful to them (even if they sound silly to you). They might blow up at you for what seems like the smallest of frustrations, and then might be as sweet as can be just an hour later.

What most of us parents do in situations like this is we address the content of the complaining, feeling that we need to do something to make this negative feeling go away, or find a way to get it resolved. So, we try to offer solutions, give advice, and make really great suggestions about what our kids should do to stop feeling this way. In our minds, we know that we are really being helpful, and we’re doing some great parenting work here.

And then, our kids yell at us for not listening to them!   

“What?! Not listening?” we say. “I just sat here while you told me all about this issue with your teacher, and I just told you that you should probably just talk to her because that’s how you solve the problem! Simple. Why are you mad at me?? I’m just trying to help!” 

Most of us have said some variation of this to our teen at some point (full disclosure: I totally have). Out of our frustration, we may then become emotionally reactive to our kids for being disrespectful, or for not wanting to help themselves by using our great advice. Things then probably start to get ugly.

But, what if what our kids wanted wasn’t to deal with the content of the problem (in the example above, the content would be the stress with the teacher and how to solve this problem)? What if our teen is just trying to figure out how to negotiate these complicated feelings of fear, anger, or frustration?

Keep in mind that your teen may be using you to vent feelings they can’t express in other areas of their life. That means you are one of the safe places for them to express these complicated feelings. If we shut our teen’s feelings down by telling them what they are thinking about is silly, or they really shouldn’t worry so much, or by giving unsolicited advice, then we might miss an opportunity to help our child navigate their own feelings and sort out what they want to do about their problem.

What Parents Can Do

The most important job that you may have when your teen is erupting like an emotional volcano would be to listen quietly to them, and to remind yourself that you are just a way for them to unload their stress of the day. You don’t have to react, and you don’t have to fix. Try to empathize: “Geez. Sounds like you’ve had a rough day.” Try to remember that what they are upset about is important to them, even if it sounds silly or inconsequential to you.

Parents actually have a very important role in encouraging teens to learn how to navigate their emotions effectively. This requires parents to begin to move away from problem solver and into something new.

Consider the following ideas to help you think about this new parenting role:

  • Learn the difference between venting and complaining. Complaining is asking for a fix. Venting is asking to be heard. If you think your child is complaining when they are really venting, you’ll try to offer advice and solutions they don’t need, and they might become more reactive. If you don’t know what they are looking for, ask them: “Do you want my help right now, or are you just venting?” 
  • Try not to react to “Externalization”. Externalization is where teenagers manage their feelings by getting their parents to have their feelings instead of them; it’s like they toss you an emotional hot potato.   

    For example, suppose your teen is stressed out about basketball tryouts next week, and they’re worried that they might not make the A team. They come home from school today and when they find out you’re making spaghetti, they blow up at you, yelling something about how you should have known how much they hate that sauce you always buy, and if they don’t get good food this week then tryouts with be horrible and they won’t make the team, and... whatever, just forget it! Hot potato officially dropped in your lap.   

    It’s easy to react to this, because suddenly we feel anger and stress, which is exactly what they are feeling. Try not to react. Instead, lean in with empathy, and try to understand better what’s going on for them. Help your teen try to bring their reactions and feelings back down to size, and to try to see things a little clearer before they can decide what to do. Encourage their wisdom, since this is their problem to solve. 
  • Teach your teen to make friends with their distress. Teens can become overwhelmed with their feelings, and they may even worry that they are crazy when they have intense emotions. When this happens they may try to avoid dealing with the feeling itself and use technology, friends, alcohol, homework/grades, sports, hobbies, or even their families to distract themselves from their discomfort. Try to teach them that mentally healthy people get upset, and that the only time that we worry is when people don’t recover. Encourage them to reflect on their hard feelings as useful pieces of information that can let them know something they might need to pay attention to. If they pay attention to it, they can probably learn from it, and then maybe have new ideas about how to deal with a problem moving forward.   
  • Teens often have the right feeling, but they are feeling it on the wrong scale. They can often identify their problem accurately, but the level of distress they experience can be excessively high. It’s hard to learn and grow if you feel like you are drowning in emotion. Be mindful of that as you sit with them. 
  • Help your teen name their feelings, and offer a safe place to talk about them. This can really help your teen figure out how to bring their feelings down to size so that they are more manageable. When you sit with your child’s feelings without trying to make them go away, you’re sending them the message that the feelings are hard but not something to be afraid of, not something to avoid.   
  • Be careful not to minimize their feelings. Comments like, “Oh sweetie, I’m sure you’re worried about nothing,” or “This won’t mean anything to you in five years” could make teens might feel like you aren’t hearing them. As a result, this can backfire, and force kids to “turn up” their emotions. Instead, sit with them and validate their feelings, and this can often allow teens space to then settle down enough to begin to find their own solution, or perhaps even listen to your wisdom. 

When To Worry

When teens feelings are consistently somber or angry, dominated almost exclusively by anxiety, goes to frightening extremes or use self-destructive measures to cope with her feelings, this may be a sign that something more concerning is going on for them. In particular, if your child’s mood or anxiety is significantly interfering with their life in a way that is becoming persistent, make an appointment with a professional for an evaluation. A mental health provider will be able to determine what’s going on with your teen, and will work with you to come up with a plan to help them get back to where they need to be.

If you are an MSU employee and are concerned about your teen, and would like to have a conversation with someone to sort out whether or not your teen is engaging in behaviors that you need to worry about, feel free to contact MSU’s Employee Assistance Program. You can set up an appointment to talk with a licensed counselor about your concerns, who will be able to help you sort out your concerns, and explore any options you have to get your child the help that they need. Contact MSU’s EAP at 517-355-4506, or eap@msu.edu.

Next month: TASK 4 -- Contending with Adult Authority! 

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