Teens can be a bit of an emotional handful, much like they were in the toddler years. When we can recognize their struggle and approach their frustrations with intentionality, it can help reduce the frustration of both the adult and the teen. Drawing from the work of Dr. Siegel and Bryson, I want to talk about connecting and redirecting. This strategy is good with children of all ages, but I find really helpful with the oldest children in the house.
Connect and Re-direct.
Teens need to be seen, heard and understood. Even if we don’t agree with them.
Frequently, their frustrations seem to have clear solutions. But teens want independence. Swooping in with obvious fixes for their struggle is not often met with gratitude. Instead, start by recognizing and accepting their emotional load.
Showing them that you see and hear their pain. ”That sounds hurtful/frustrating/unfair/sad/confusing etc., or How did that make you feel? Or if you are with younger children “that would have made me feel sad/mad/confused etc.
Next, listen. You are providing them with an opening to share, to connect with you, and to be vulnerable. Sometimes when teens tantrum they just need to let it all out, or they need a hug, or to have a good cry. Other times they will want to continue to vent. Allow them some space to vent in whatever form they want. Sometimes our sons needed at this point to go for a run. Often our daughters have a good cathartic cry.
Once we have connected with the emotional side of the teen’s brain, you have achieved a sort of intersubjectivity that lays the foundation for helping get them redirected logically to find a solution. We have established we care, we understand, and we are on their side.
Too often parents try to jump into the emotions and escalate the tensions of a teenage temper tantrum. Alternatively, sometimes they ignore the emotions and end up cognitively disconnected.
“You just don’t understand” or
“That won’t work”
is the common response in these circumstances. If you hear this often, you may want to change your approach. Parents need to let their teen feel all those big feelings before they guide the teen to switch on the logic side of their brain.
The executive functioning or control center of the brain is the last part to develop. The teen brain is not able to switch from highly emotional to highly logical just because a parent commands it to do so.
Emotions need to run their course.
After they have emotionally exhausted themselves through the venting process, we are able to help. When we try to prevent the expression of feelings the teens end up either emotionally stunted, ashamed, confused, and unable to process emotions in a healthy way.
Once they have moved towards being solution-focused and have moved away from the purely emotional, be careful you (or someone else) don’t move them back to the emotional. Friends or well-meaning family member, will sometimes enter into the conversation late and draw them back into the emotional, but this is now counterproductive.
When our teen is angry with us or we are the source of the frustration, again we can help them by listening, deescalating, and trying to help them process their emotions rather than arguing with their logic. Remaining as neutral as possible, keeping as calm as possible, and attempting to connect to the emotional side of their brain will help them see that although you disagree with them, you aren’t uncaring.
Hearing their feelings on the subject, however, does not mean that you now need to acquiesce to their demands. Be clear on your expectations, that you recognize this makes them angry/sad/frustrated, but that this is a non-negotiable. Or if there is flexibility, you can let them know where that flexibility lies, and move forward together towards a solution.
Lastly, recognize that dealing with frustrations is a learned skill. If you give in to your teen’s tantrums, or leave them alone to work it out, you are abdicating one of your parental responsibilities. Just as you need to teach them how to use manners and be responsible for their things, teens need to learn how to deal with big emotions. At one point when my oldest was about 13, he just collapsed in my arms in tears and said “I just don’t know why I am so angry all the time”. They need to understand what is happening with their bodies, with their hormones, and how to handle those hormone rushes. They also need to be able to determine if a problem is really a problem, or if they are blowing it out of proportion.
By connecting, listening, letting them vent, and then problem-solving together, you can walk them through the steps and provide scaffolding for their social-emotional growth.