The teenage brain differs to adults’ in the way it processes information and resolves problems. Things that we might find a simple solution for can cause real distress to our teenagers. So how can we support them when things feel a bit too much?
Here are 5 steps to supporting your teen with an outburst of emotion:
Meet them where they are at. If they are crying, shouting, or slamming doors – allow them to let it out. Validate by describing what you see or hear:
“It looks like something has upset you”
“I’m here to help you work this out, if you would like that”
“I’m wondering if you would like some space?”
Calm and soothe
Our non-verbal communication is important here. We can all pick up on whether someone is able to hold space for us, and teens are just the same. Speak slowly and calmly, although I know that can be difficult when we’re faced with an outburst. It can help for us to remember that our teenager is communicating something to us with their behaviour.
Repeating phrases like:“I’m here to listen”, “Take your time”, “I’m not going anywhere” can be helpful, so they feel safe to let it out before they move into understanding what has happened.
Big emotions like fear, shame, loneliness and anger can consume and engulf children until they can’t see a way out. This can then trigger a further reaction, as they can feel like there’s nothing to lose. We can hold space for them, say that it’s okay to feel that way, and that we’re here to help them sit with their feelings for however long is needed.
It’s good for us as adults to hold perspective too, and remember that this won’t last forever!
Outward displays of anger or upset can manifest in teens displaying behaviour like hitting, shouting, swearing, saying hurtful things and being destructive. After the initial cloud of emotions passes, shame can arrive as they realise that they might have hurt you, or damaged something.
This shame can start a vicious cycle of outbursts again, and often lead to withdrawal both physically and emotionally.
It can be helpful to acknowledge this with them. Saying something like:
“I’m glad you feel calmer now, it sounded like you were having a really tough time. I want you to know that I love you. When you swear at me/slam the door, I feel sad. Maybe we could work something out together, so you feel heard before it gets to that point next time?”
By acknowledging their feelings, you’re showing them that you are a safe person for them to express themselves to. By reminding them that you love them, you are saying:
“I’m still here and your feelings aren’t going to push me away.”
By acknowledging that their actions can cause you to feel sad, you are a) separating their actions from who they are as a person and b) respecting your boundaries and recognising that their behaviour is not ok.
Repairing can look different depending on the length of outburst and the consequences of it. Repeating that you love them and that you want to understand can sometimes be all it takes for them to lower their defences. Sometimes, both you and they might need some space before coming back together.
It’s helpful to communicate this clearly to them if so. Saying something like:
“I love you. I’m sorry you’re finding things difficult at the moment. I am here to help you work this out. I’m going to take 30 minutes to cook dinner/go for a walk/finish my work and then I’m here to talk, if you’d like.”
It’s more helpful than saying something vague like, “We’ll talk about it later”, as the word “later” can leave them with a sense of dread and uncertainty about how much time will pass before the issue can be resolved. This can in turn lead to withdrawal, fear or shame.
The impact of Covid-19 on children and young people is also not something for us to dismiss. Consequences like loss of face-to-face friendships, fear of socialising and missing out on schooling are all going to have an impact on behaviour.
Remember that you are not alone in having a teenager who is going through challenges; it’s part of the process of their brain development. Talk to friends, family and your GP if you have concerns. Your child’s school will also be able to offer great insight into their behaviour in class and with peers, which may shed a light on possible causes or patterns.
Please do not hesitate to contact me to talk any of your worries or concerns through too; I would be delighted to support you.