Teaching Your Tween or Teen to Name the Unnameable
“What’s going on?” I say at pick up time after school seeing a disturbed face on my son and feeling a strange energy from him. “I don’t know” he responds immediately with an annoyed tone. And that was all I got out of him until much later that evening. As he completed his homework and I worked nearby, he started talking. His friend had been unexpectedly mean to him at school and he didn’t know what to think about it. As we began to talk I could hear that he was angry that his friend was unkind in front of others. That anger, I suspected, disguised a bit of humiliation being verbally attacked in front of other friends. And as the story continued, it was clear, he was anxious about their friendship and what might happen when they encountered one another the next day.
I wonder if he would have told me this story if he had been able to name the strange, tangled mix of emotions that went along with his inner experience. It seems so simple to offer one label to our feelings and in the younger years, that one label – “sad” – is necessary to begin a child’s emotional vocabulary. But in the tween and teen years, our children can experience a swirling vortex of multiple feelings that may conflict with one another or seem not to make sense. Additionally, they’ve certainly been told by someone in their life whether a parent, grandparent, coach or teacher that they are fine, to “move on” – when they’re not. There are a whole host of emotions that don’t get named because they are too vulnerable or too challenging for others to deal with — feelings like fear, jealousy, rejection, apathy, grief, disgust and more.
There’s a ride at our favorite amusement park we visit each year – Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio – called The Monster. The website describes the experience of riding The Monster as…
“enveloping guests in pods of fear and tossing them about on a wild, wicked course…hapless riders spin independently all while tilting and jostling up and down. You might even catch a bit of weightlessness along the way, adding to the feeling of utter helplessness.”1
This might also aptly at times describe the inner experience of social drama. And unravelling those inner experiences can be quite a feat for any parent or caregiver attempting to read the situation and act as a positive emotional coach. Yet, there are major benefits to the practice of attuning to and naming your internal experience including self awareness and psychological well-being in addition, to becoming skilled at self management.2 Each time, a child seeks understanding from a caring adult by naming their feelings, they are learning to calm themselves down by telling their story and seeking support. “Name it to tame it” works!
So how can we help promote this emotional literacy at the tween and teen ages when the internal ride can become more volatile and unpredictable? Here are some ideas.
Keep a Feelings List at the Ready. Sometimes it’s easier to name your inner experience when the language is available for you. Lists help provide words for what otherwise might seem like a confusing unnameable labyrinth. When you notice particular emotions, name them and ask if you are accurate. Here’s the Big Feelings List from the “Confident Parents, Confident Kids” book.
Connect Body Sensations to Feelings. Is your stomach feeling icky? Does your head ache? Is your heart beating rapidly? Is your face temperature rising? Even subtleties in how your body feels can indicate feelings. Making those connections can help your child better manage them when, for example, they recognize the tummy ache before a test as nerves and do some deep breathing to manage it. Check in before and after your son or daughter has employed a coping strategy like deep breathing. Ask, “Now how do your insides feel?”
Write to Reflect. Journaling is a great way to uncover hidden feelings and tell your whole story. But sometimes children and teens don’t know what to write. So sometimes just offering a prompt can help such as, “tell your story as if to a best friend who is eager for all of the details.” Or ask for metaphors to describe what she’s feeling — “is it like a freight train ran you over or do you feel kicked in the gut?” Or check out our downloadable one-pager: Drama Dial-Down; A Quick Path for Teens to Mindfulness.
Name and Discern Which Inner Voice to Listen to. Around age eight or nine, you can begin to introduce the idea that each person has inner voices that speak to them. There’s an inner critic we all have that seeks to tear down even our best ideas. And there’s an inner wise elder who offers the best of who we are. As we know, the inner critic is loud and insistent particularly when we are about to take any kind of social risk. Yet if we are to act bravely and not succumb to it, we have to recognize that voice and insist it does not truly represent who we are or what we want. Our inner wise elder is much harder to hear. That’s why we have to pause, get quiet and allow ourselves the chance to listen deeply to what our best self has to offer the situation.
Turn Up the Feelings Talk But Stop Rumination. As you increase your discussion of your son or daughter’s internal state, you may notice stories repeating or worries repeating over and again. The open communication you’ve established has moved into rumination. Discussing, leaning into and moving through a feeling – even and especially challenging ones – is critical. But rumination is unproductive and leaves the individual on the ride of the swirling vortex with no end in sight. Help your child stop ruminating by talking about how the same thoughts and feelings cannot produce new solutions or new thinking. So how can you accept the feelings, decide on a way to feel better, and let go of the story? As an emotions coach, you might ask, “what can you do to make things better? How can you focus your attention on taking those small actions?”
The thrill of a good ride can leave you ready to try another. And that’s our hope for your tweens and teens – that they seek self-knowledge and understanding by pausing and reflecting. Their range of emotions can become one of their greatest assets as they learn to use the information from their hearts and guts as important data in their responsible decision-making and in managing their relationships. We can support their efforts by learning how to serve as an emotional coach when we can see they really need it.
1. Cedar Point – The Monster. https://www.cedarpoint.com/rides-experiences/monster
2. Sutton A. Measuring the Effects of Self-Awareness: Construction of the Self-Awareness Outcomes Questionnaire. Eur J Psychol. 2016 Nov 18;12(4):645-658. doi: 10.5964/ejop.v12i4.1178. PMID: 27872672; PMCID: PMC5114878.