Helping Teens Manage Big Emotions

 

Want to help teens be more resilient? Teach them to get comfortable with their emotions.

Do you know any parents who like to say, “just get over it!”? I sometimes hear parents complain that their teen is too emotional or too fragile.  They come to me worried that their daughter isn’t being tough enough or that their son doesn’t stand up for himself the way he should.  Having worked in education and mental health for many years, I hear words like toughness, grit and resilience thrown around as the primary character traits that are missing in today’s youth.  While I agree that those traits are valuable, I disagree with the notion that being resilient is the opposite of being emotional.  I would argue, in fact, that learning to get comfortable with your emotions is actually a necessary step toward becoming resilient.

What does RESILIENT mean anyway?

A person who is resilient is someone who is “able to withstand or recover from difficult situations.”  Notice the definition says RECOVER, not IGNORE.  And it says WITHSTAND, not DISMISS.  In our effort to teach kids to be tough, too often we focus on wanting kids to get over it, when it might be more productive to teach them how to get through it.

When we tell our kids to “suck it up and get over it”, we are actually doing the opposite of teaching them to be tough.  Instead we are teaching them to deny, dismiss and ignore how they feel.  Instead of becoming resilient, when teens don’t learn how to manage their emotions, they develop a bad habit of pushing those feelings down and trying to ignore them.  We all know what happens next: those feelings pop up again and again, in a variety of unproductive ways, because they haven’t really gone away.  Eventually, teens who consistently avoid difficult emotions are more likely to start numbing their feelings with drugs and alcohol or acting out their unresolved anger in more destructive ways.

What can parents do?

When your teen is dealing with a strong emotion—sadness over not making a team, anger over a friendship situation, intense stress due to school pressure – there are several things you can do to help them get through it rather than just “get over it”.

Teach your teen to identify and label what they’re feeling.  Is it really anger, or are they feeling hurt? Is it really sadness or is it disappointment?  Having the right words to describe what they’re experiencing will help them make better decisions about how to address it.

Help them describe all the pieces of what they’re feeling.  Make an effort to see the experience through their eyes.  What triggered this emotion?  What physical symptoms do they notice when they feel this way? What impulses are they feeling (I just want to scream! Or I feel like punching someone!) When teens learn to recognize the patterns of what different emotions feel like — in their mind as well as in their body —  they can start to anticipate how the whole cycle will play out, and the feeling itself becomes less overwhelming.

Encourage them to avoid making important decisions in the midst of big emotions.  Remind them gently that it’s a bad idea to abruptly quit the team, or rant on social media or break up with a girlfriend at the peak of emotional intensity.

Give them permission to let their emotions out in the way that works best for them.  Whether it’s crying, screaming into a pillow, walking it off, or taking a relaxing shower — there are countless, healthy ways to release pent-up emotion.

What should parents avoid?

When I talk to teens about this, they are pretty clear and consistent about the things their parents do that never work.

Don’t dismiss their feelings.  Saying things like “calm down, it’s not a big deal” or “you won’t feel this way tomorrow” only convinces your teen that you aren’t listening and you don’t understand.

Don’t compare their teen experiences to your adult life.  I’ve worked with many teens who tell me their parents often respond with comments like, “you think you’re stressed? Try working full time, raising a family and paying bills! That’s REAL stress!” While it’s probably true that your life is more stressful than theirs, they are only able to see the world through their own experiences, so pointing this out only serves to convince them that you aren’t listening and you don’t understand.

Don’t share a story from “back in the day”.  This is the NUMBER ONE, most common pet peeve I hear from my teen clients! Trust me when I say that when you try to tell them you experienced exactly the same thing at their age, they don’t believe you! It might be a great story, and it might relate beautifully to what your teen is experiencing, but please save it for later.  As far as they are concerned, the way we handled our anger or sadness back in the 80s is just as irrelevant and unrelatable as our big hair and heavy metal music 🙂

The benefits of teaching our kids to become comfortable with their emotions can’t be overstated.  Giving our teens the tools to manage intense moments of emotion is a skill that will serve them well far beyond the teen years.  When we teach them how to define, describe and sit with their emotions instead of numbing, deflecting or distracting themselves, we are fostering the genuine resilience and toughness that we were looking for all along.  When they feel empowered to manage strong emotions, they develop the strength to move forward, feeling more confident that they will be able to handle whatever comes next.

Check out this week's video where I explore the idea of Emotional Intelligence and offer tips for helping your teen improve their emotional vocabulary and identify the intensity of what they're feeling.

Weekly Tips to your Inbox

Join our mailing list to receive valuable ideas, insights, research and tips for parenting during the teen years.

Close

50% Complete

Two Step

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.