It is that time of year again. The honeymoon period is over, pre-trip jitters have come and gone, quarter one has ended, college applications are coming due, sports seasons are ending or just starting, and evidence of learning tasks are in full swing.
Our teens are always on a roller coaster of emotions and energy levels that can be exhausting and dizzying for parents and caregivers. Dr Damour’s podcast (linked below) offers insight into how we can support our teens’ emotionality without accidentally dismissing or adding to the intensity.
The first thing parents can do is make sure they understand what is considered “normal” or “typical” for their teen’s age. Depending on the age, it is very typical for teens to present upsetting experiences as being all consuming, huge and going in all directions. For example, if something happened during a typical up and down school day, they may come home extremely upset. They might paint a picture of an intensely painful, awful day where nothing went right and no way to fix it. Oftentimes parents will shift into problem solving or helping mode. Other times, we might join them at their emotional level, accidently adding to their distress, by becoming distressed ourselves. Dr Damour offers some helpful tips parents can use to navigate these emotional episodes.
SOME KEY STRATEGIES TO USE AT THIS POINT
- Employing the motto, “It may not be true, but it is real, (Real not true)” This is very helpful when we feel they are overreacting – it can keep parents from being dismissive and missing an opportunity to be supportive. Their reaction may not be based on events as they truly happened, but this is all very real to them. It is their current reality.
- Asking the question: “How can I help?” This supports the idea that you do not want to assume they want your help or that you know what they need at this moment. It can create a space in which they have a voice, rather than being told.
- Asking the question: “Is there anything I can do that won’t make it worse?” This approach signals that you can handle their emotions and don’t need it to stop, and that you want to be a steady presence for them.
Understanding the nature of our teens’ emotionality is also very helpful. When at their most emotional, our teens are not open to care and help so it is important to understand the need for time and space. Dr Damour shares the metaphor of a glitter jar. When our kids are experiencing high levels of emotions or emotional breakdowns, they are flooded. They are like a shaken jar of glitter. They cannot reason and problem-solve in that state so need your steady, non-reactive presence (or space) to help them settle. Like a jar of glitter, once settled they can see their problem more clearly and are more open to care.
The Glitter Jar Metaphor
This is a mindfulness jar. The glitter represents your thoughts
It can be a tough moment for tired, frustrated parents to navigate because we forget that although “it might not be true; it is real” for them. Although we might want to hurry them along in the process because we either have other things to do or feel it really is not this big a deal, it is actually the time for parents to be a steady, neutral presence to help them to re-regulate their emotions. Using a glitter jar, asking if you can get them water, offering to give them space, or sitting quietly with them are ways to provide them with the time needed for their emotionally flooded brain to calm. Once calm, you can use the questions offered above to see what your teen needs.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU SHOULD BE WORRIED?
Since adolescence is characterised by its roller coaster-like inconsistency it can be tough to know if what you are experiencing is just a thing or if it is a bigger problem. Expect teens’ emotions to go up and down and feel erratic at times, but:
- Notice if the upset continues over multiple days or weeks
- Notice if the high continues over multiple days or weeks
- Notice if complaints continue over extended periods of time
Always, though, trust your instinct. You know your child best. When in doubt, reach out. If you are worried, reach out to the school. Teachers and counsellors can be excellent resources when it comes to understanding the expected spectrum for teens.
To listen to the full podcast, click the link below.
How Do I Stop Riding My Kid’s Emotional Roller Coaster?