Do you remember being a teenager? Riding on bright white crests of joy and excitement one moment before being pulled into a dark, swirling vortex of inexplicable sorrow or anger and frustration the next, each feeling more intense than the last? Maybe you cried over perceived slights that left your parents scratching their heads or experienced inexplicable break-ups of friendships you’d had since elementary school. Maybe you stormed out of rooms in a huff, shouting your hatred and dismay at their lack of empathy toward your parents just as your bedroom door slammed shut.
And now? Now you’re on the other side of the slamming door and the screams of “You just don’t understand!” Or if you’re not there yet, you fear it’s coming for you as you watch your tweens grappling with more complex emotional states and challenging relationships as they gain independence and head into puberty and all that comes with it.
So…how do you help your teens or tweens gain mastery over their emotions and create a more peaceful household? Is it even possible?
It absolutely is. By helping build your child’s emotional intelligence, you’ll help them establish critical skills that can help them develop self-awareness, become more confident, empathetic, and resilient and also enable them to better navigate relationships, and ultimately, achieve greater success.
Emotional intelligence involves several components including the ability to recognize emotions, both your own and those of others; the ability to understand the root cause of your own emotions or those of others; and perhaps more importantly, learning how to regulate your emotions and using our emotions in determining where to apply our energy and focus. Really, these are skills you’ve likely been helping your child build their whole life. With a teen, however, it’s time to double-down as both the onset of puberty and the intense and rapid brain development that occurs during this time result in a combination of often strained communications and deeply felt emotions that need to be felt, expressed, and managed. But what’s a parent to do with all this?
First…keep showing up with unconditional love and compassion. Every. Single. Day. Even when they’re angry. Even when they say stupid things they don’t mean.
Then, keep communicating and sharing and reminding them that you do care. Teach your kids to talk about their feelings. Ask open-ended questions (not yes or no questions) about how they feel about a topic rather than asking them about their actions and then listen. Resist the urge to tell them how they should feel, what they should do, or to try to fix a situation for them. Give them the space and grace to work through challenging feelings and situations on their own and you will empower them to solve future problems and to gain confidence in their own abilities. One of the best opportunities for getting kids talking is in the car. Whether it’s on the drive to or from school or sports, or on a road trip, there’s something about riding in a car and not having to make eye contact that invites conversation. Especially if you can help them relax by putting on music or a podcast they love and connecting with them around it.
Similarly, it’s important that you don’t judge them for any emotion.
Don’t ridicule their outsize feelings or tell them they’re overreacting. The teenage limbic system is highly engaged as the brain experiences the most rapid phase of development it has undergone since the phase from newborn to three years. When describing the brain activity seen on MRIs of teenage brains, researchers have described the limbic system as being “lit up like neon.” The emotions come on fast and are deeply felt. What might look like an overreaction to you, feels genuine and important to your child. Ridiculing them or not taking their feelings seriously undermines both their ability to recognize and trust their feelings and your relationship with them.
It’s also crucial that you do not place a value judgment on feelings. We all know people who insist on always being pleasant, the ones who find anger or sorrow or anything that causes them discomfort to be distasteful. Don’t be that person. All feelings are valid. Anger, fear, sadness, jealousy…they’re not bad. They’re normal and natural and your kid needs to know how to feel, name, and then use those feelings to create constructive action to change the root cause of the feeling or accept that it cannot be changed and move on. When you tell a child or a teen that a certain emotion is bad, you damage their self-awareness and stifle their ability to express and process critical feelings. Negative emotions offer keys to self-awareness and help each of us understand what we value, what behaviors we find acceptable, and learning how to feel negative emotions without being swept under by them is critical to functioning with high emotional intelligence.
Furthermore, when you judge a child or teen’s negative emotions as something “bad,” you send an inherent message that you only love or approve of them when they radiate positivity and you set them up to go through life not only stifling their own anger but trying to avoid making others angry as well. That said, it is absolutely okay to let your kids know that certain behaviors tied to their emotions are not okay. Just like you teach a toddler not to hit or kick or bite or throw themselves on the floor in fit of anger, you may need to help your teen find appropriate ways to express their feelings. My husband and I have seen amazing growth in our 14-year-old this year simply by reminding him to calmly tell his brother when he has overstepped a boundary rather than body slamming him or storming out of the room. And, we also bought him a punching bag and encourage physical activity to help burn off anger as well…a trick I learned works well for myself a few years ago.
Finally, and perhaps, obviously, the best thing you can do is model appropriate emotional behaviors.
Allow your kids to see you experiencing a range of feelings. Apologize when you yell. Stand with your friends who are grieving and let your kids see it. Stand with your kids when they are disappointed or heart-broken and instead of saying something like “this will pass” or “it gets better,” (even though it will and it does), just tell them you know they’re hurting and how awful it is and remind them that you love them no matter what.
Teen angst is real and it’s no fun for anyone, least of all the kid going through it. And while they might not be able to control all the emotional ups and downs yet, they can learn to ride the waves and survive them with your love and support.