How to help teens regulate their strong emotions



Teen years are associated with a variety of mental and physical challenges. If you're living with an adolescent, chances are that you are already aware of the numerous changes going on in your child's life and the effect that these changes have on you.

As teen bodies and brains change sometimes in dramatic ways, they'll experience a new intensity of emotions that might be either entirely new to a parent, or an exaggeration of emotions that were never present before. As teens try to manage emotions that feel overwhelmingly painful, they might use destructive behaviours such as self-harm, aggression against family members, risky behaviours or abuse substance consumptions such as smoking, drinking or drugs.

Some parents are complaining that their teen looks like he or she is a different person. As a result, parents feel despair, worry, frustration, anger as they do not understand what is going on with their child and how to deal with such, sometimes sudden, changes.

This experience might be particularly difficult for parents who lack themselves the skills of emotional self-control. It is hard to help someone with intense emotions when you cannot help yourself. This is also why, one of the most important factors is to look at your way of coping with negative feelings, at how healthy or unhealthy patterns you have.

In the following lines, I'll offer a few key ideas and strategies about how to become more effective in managing strong emotions, while supporting your teen go through one of the most difficult time in his or her life.

1. Show understanding, acceptance and respect towards your teen

Your teen, as he/she moves towards adulthood, has the challenge to develop his/her own identity. This means that they will need to separate from you. The way they are doing this is by sometimes acting more challenging and rebelling against you, and by wanting more distance from you at times. Your teen will test your limits, challenge your expectations and authority or even reject them as part of this process. The more you'll struggle to impose your authority, the more resistance you'll receive.

When you understand that this is a natural process, you might be able to give more space to your teen, respect the boundaries they ask for and you’ll hopefully stop taking things so personally (although this part is very hard).

2. Talk to your teen about how thoughts, feelings and behaviours are intercorrelated and how they are a response to their way of interpreting a situation

In other words, the same situation can be interpreted differently depending on their vulnerability to stress. I'm sure you've noticed that some simple factors like being tired, feeling hungry, going through a stressful situation, lacking social support have a great impact on your emotions and behaviours. This is true also for your teen as they struggle with the impact of the hormones, with being under pressure at school, having troubles with other peers or having body image issues.

When you and your teen understand what event or thought triggers your emotional reaction, you gain more insight into how to deal with it more fairly.

3. Pay attention to the interactions between your vulnerability to stress, your own interpretations and thoughts, and those of your teen

When at least one of you is aware of its vulnerability, you can opt-out from answering to anger with anger, you can choose a better timing to talk about issues that are bothering you and to even find solutions. Ask yourself how many of your high escalated conflicts lead to a resolution? As I observed during my work with parents, managing own vulnerabilities before getting into an escalation or even telling teens that we are vulnerable (low energy, bad day, hungry) will create a boundary to conflict and will teach your teen to be aware and manage his/her vulnerabilities. When you can spot a good time, talk to your teen about your thoughts and how you feel about situations you do not approve.

Don’t be judgmental or critical. Instead, describe your point of view, check if this is the reality and try to find together an appropriate solution by having a collaborative approach.

4. Children and teens are not so good at expressing emotions. They often "feel" them in their bodies. By helping your teen recognize body sensations and "translate" them into emotions, they manage a better connection between body and mind.

Headaches, butterflies in the stomach or tension in shoulders, heart racing, sweaty palms, feeling tired most times, are some of the bodily signals of high emotions like anxiety or sadness. When you are aware of what your body is telling you, you can better respond to the emotions and release your fear of not knowing what is going on with you. Do your best in helping teens identify a large number of emotions from negative like anxiety, frustration, bored, rejected, disappointed, jealous, insecure, angry to positive emotions like pride, joyful, satisfaction, energized, hopeful, loving, appreciated.

The more diverse the emotional vocabulary, the better.

5. Often a parent will focus only on the negative behaviour their teen will show and make a judgement upon it. Instead, you can explore together the root and the consequences of negative behaviour. Look at the positive and negative impact for both short and long-term, on your teen and on the family future

Behaviours are often resulting from strong emotions, it is a way of releasing emotions or of escaping them. For example, skipping school can be a behaviour stemming from social anxiety or anxiety from not feeling well prepared (performance anxiety). Understanding the emotion or situation that triggers that behaviour will help in exploring other alternatives, healthy behaviours for your teen. For this, you need to look deeper than the behaviour and to understand what’s the real trigger for it.

6. Don’t miss opportunities for positive connections with your teen

It might seem like you, as a parent come now on the second place, however don’t forget that you still play an important role for your teen. Maybe they show it in a more subtle way, but your teen likes to have your attention and care. All you need is to notice their clues and make time to connect with them.

Positive social and family connections help decreasing stress level and, even if teens look now for spending more time with their friends, family is still very important and offers them the much-needed stability.

Navigating through emotional storms was never easy. Many unhealthy behaviours in teens and even in adults are a result of a lack of management of negative emotions and stress. When you can help your teen find more positive ways of expressing themselves, for example through communication, creativity, writing, listening to music, relaxing activities, you’ll be able to have more harmony in your family.

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