Adolescence is an emotionally-wrought time for both kids and their parents. If you’re wondering how to support teens when they’re upset, here are some helpful tips.
Recently, a teenage 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 tried to offer advice. A very understandable response, right?
Unfortunately, sobbing adolescents are not typically in the best state of mind to handle advice. Even if they agree with the suggestions, their strong emotions (and their still-developing prefrontal cortex) may override their ability to truly hear what their parents are saying. In this particular situation, as in many, the teen’s anger was driving her emotion-driven responses to anything her parents said.
As a result, her parents became angered that she was making things worse. Their anger was confusing and upsetting when she was really looking for support. Now everyone was mad and no one knew any healthy ways to cope and move forward.
When parents try to help their upset teenagers, emotion often gets in the way of productive conversation.
You might wonder why her parents chose anger over support. I think many are surprised to realize that the two are not mutually exclusive. (And, that feeling “angry” isn’t always a choice.) Trying to support someone and not feeling like we are being successful can make us feel helpless. And this leads to new emotions of anger and frustration.
In other words, the anger we express towards the person we are trying to support can be more reflective of our emotion of feeling helpless. This response is particularly strong with our teens. 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, saying, “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 his aggression.
As parents, we jump into problem-solving mode, which isn’t always what our angry teen needs.
My father was so angry that he couldn’t “fix it” for me. (Okay, there may have also been some instances when I was just being a pain in the ass.) But the bigger, and more common issue was that sometimes what felt like big, serious problems to me as a teen caused a feeling of overwhelm. And while I was living in the tornado of angry teenager angst, my dad was angry and frustrated too.
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 professionals, is that teens need to feel loved and supported more than they need advice. And, they need their parents to remain calm, not add fuel to the fire.
4 Healthy ways parents can support their teenagers when they’re upset
1. Be mindful that feeling helpless leads to frustration.
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 frustration and allow you to simply validate your teen’s triggers. 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 as they are hurting and just be on their side.
2. Take some deep breaths (just like you encourage your teen to do).
If you are noticing an urge to express anger, take a break from the situation. Just as we encourage our kids to take deep breaths, sometimes we need to do the same. Expressing your own frustration will not ease your child’s anger, 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. You can’t be an effective support system for your emotionally charged teen until you get your own aggression under control.
3. Remember that teens often need to make their own choices and experience the natural consequences.
Parents cannot protect their adolescents 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 and we cannot control every aspect of their behavior. Instead of being angry at them, be by their side while they face natural consequences. What they need from us most, rather than having us “fix it”, is acceptance and unconditional love through these anxiety-ridden adolescent years when their hormones are raging and their problem-solving skills are still developing.
4. Cut yourself some slack—parenting an upset teenager in the throes of puberty isn’t easy for anyone.
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. And give yourself some grace that you can’t always problem-solve for an angry teenager—sometimes they just have to sit in their emotions for a bit.
None of us is perfect at managing teenage anger or our own emotional responses to feeling helpless when our kids are upset. Yet, knowledge of this connection tends to reduce the likelihood of a series of escalating angry outbursts.
I know my client still wished her parents could have just given her a hug, as that is what she needed most. 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. Most of the time, we parents are doing our best—even if we don’t always get it right.
Are you in the thick of raising your tweens and teens? You may like this book by Whitney Fleming, the co-owner of Parenting Teens & Tweens: Loving Hard When They’re Hard to Love: Essays about Raising Teens in Today’s Complex, Chaotic World.
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