Recently, a teenaged client described a familiar scenario to me. She had become very emotional following a fight in her circle of friends. Having overheard some of the conflict, her parents’ response was to offer advice. A very understandable response.
Unfortunately, sobbing teenagers are not typically in the best state of mind to handle advice. Even if they agree with the suggestions, their emotions may override their ability to execute the advised approach effectively. In this particular situation, as in many, the teens’ best intentions were overshadowed by her emotion driven responses.
Despite her efforts, her parents became angered that she was making things worse. Their anger was confusing and upsetting when she was really looking for support.
You might wonder why her parents chose anger over support. I think many are surprised to realize that the two are not mutually exclusive. Trying to support someone and not feeling like we are being successful can make us feel helpless. When that feeling is intolerable, it is often communicated as anger.
In other words, the anger we express towards the person we are trying to support can be more reflective of our anger over feeling helpless. This response is particularly strong with our children. After all, it is our duty to protect them. When we can’t, we can miscommunicate our anger at feeling helpless as anger at our teens for being hurt.
Like my teen client, I can remember times when I was the recipient of that type of anger. I can still recall the sound of mounting frustration in my parents’ voices as I would cry over the most recent high school distress. My very supportive dad would yell at me “you have to tell me what is wrong, so I can help.” At the time, his yelling didn’t make sense to me. In fact, I am pretty sure it drove me crazy. Yet, I grew to understand the real source of the anger.
He was so angry that he couldn’t “fix it.” Okay, there may have also been some instances when I was just being a pain in the ass. However, I still maintain that was only a part of my parents’ frustration.
Try to remember your own experiences as an adolescent. When you were upset, what did you need most from your parents. Typically, the answer my clients give, and the answer supported by research, is that teens need to feel loved and supported more than they need advice.
So, as parents, what can you do to provide support when you notice that anger bubbling up inside?
- Be mindful of feelings of helplessness. When we are aware of the thoughts fueling our emotions, we have a tool to decrease the intensity of our emotion. In this situation, reframing thoughts of helplessness can reduce your anger and allow you to simply validate your teen’s distress. Specifically, you can remind yourself that you are not helpless when your teen needs support. In most situations they are not asking you to solve their problems. They are asking you to sit with them in their distress and be on their side.
- Take a pause. If you are noticing an urge to express anger, take a break from the situation. Expressing that anger will not ease your teen’s distress, or your own. In contrast, taking a break to calm your own feelings models for your teen that they don’t need to take action when their emotions are running high.
- Remember that teens often need to make their own choices and experience the natural consequences. Parents cannot protect their teens from getting hurt. We can encourage them to make choices we think will be helpful, but in the end, we have to acknowledge that we are not all knowing. Instead of being angry at them, be by their side to handle natural consequences.
- Cut yourself some slack. If the anger is stemming from helplessness, it can be decreased by self-compassion. No parent knows how to handle every situation that upsets their teen. Let yourself off the hook from the expectation that you should.
None of us will likely become perfect at controlling helplessness-induced anger. Yet, knowledge of this connection tends to reduce the likelihood of a series of escalating angry exchanges.
I know my client still wished her parents could have just given her a hug. My hope is that by sharing a different perspective on their anger, I allowed her to realize it didn’t mean that they didn’t support her.
This is a contributed post by Alisa Crossfield. She is currently enjoying the roller-coaster ride of parenting a teenage son and teenage daughter. She is also a Clinical Psychologist practicing in Westport Connecticut. Her private practice focuses on adolescents and young adults with emotion dysregulation as well as parent consultation. Her professional and personal roles serve to inform each other. She shares these experiences in a personal blog entitled “Psychdiary” and a Psychology Today blog entitled “Emotionally Healthy Teens.“