Understanding the Emotions of Our Teens
The top challenge and priority for parenting, said U.S. parents from the 2015 NBC Parenting Survey, was patience and understanding.1 That ability can become a particular challenge as children move into their teenage years. They are striving for independence yet are still very much dependent on you for your guidance, love, and support. Their bodies are looking taller and more mature, but their behaviors may not demonstrate that maturity. That paradox can be confusing for parents and sons and daughters as they navigate school, friendships and involvement in family life. I met last night with a group of parents of teenagers and asked this question that may, on first reading, seem unrelated:
How did you feel in those very first days of being a new parent?
I ask you to reflect on that same question. I heard from those in the workshop the following descriptors: scared, overwhelmed, vulnerable, isolated, happy, amazed, in love, ignorant, empathetic and sad for the loss of the life before kids. What feelings might you add to the list?
These are the very same emotions that your teenager is experiencing as he or she passes through a time period in which they are very much existing in the in-between. They are beginning to let go of while also, holding onto childhood attributes which can be sad and isolating. They also have a developmental pull to become more independent and act as adults though they are not fully equipped in their thoughts and actions for the responsibilities of adult life making them at times feel overwhelmed, at other times, excited and perhaps at other times still, shamefully ignorant. They may fall in love with the thrill of engaging in new experiences. And they may feel scared by their own impulsivity and the peer pressure that pushes them in new directions.
We are learning that teens are not only going through a major body reconstruction with changes that move them physically from a child to an adult. They are simultaneously going through a major brain reconstruction. Whereas in younger years, they were wired for magic, for learning through play (and we never lose that ability to learn from play!), their brains are shifting toward logic and reasoning that will be a requirement of their adult years. But those connections to rational thinking have not fully been made and will not be well-established until their early-to-mid-twenties.2 These significant brain changes result in individuals with larger bodies who are more impulsive, easily excitable and eager for new experiences, but less able to make connections between their desires and what might be the outcomes of acting upon them. This adds to their high level of sensitivity to any judgments made related to their ever-evolving, at-times murky identity.
The last time we, as parents, underwent a major brain reconstruction was when we become new parents.3 So those feelings that accompanied that transition time in our lives that felt so magical, so vulnerable, and so overwhelming can help us relate to the feelings of our teens. Once, we looked at our helpless baby, so completely dependent on us for survival, and felt we knew nothing about what to do or how to act in our new role as a parent. Teens stand at the gateway to adulthood and the freedom of it all looks magical. They fall in love fast and hard for each other and the ideals and hopes of their future. But they are also faced with the overwhelming knowing that they are not knowledgeable about the world or fully ready to be on their own yet.
There is much we can do, as parents, to understand this unique time of life and the intense emotions that come with it. Here are some ways we can help extend our patience and understanding and make caring connections with our teens.
1. Be ready to listen when they are ready to talk.
Teens may not want to make eye contact or respond to probing questions on the spot. After all, they are trying to assert independence but have not truly found it yet. So look for occasions when you are together, not staring eyeball to eyeball. Go to your son’s room and hang out in his world for a little while, the only goal to make a connection. Or turn down the radio on the car ride to school to create the possibility for conversation. This openness on your part will build trust so that when he runs into problems, he is more likely to come to you.
2. Express curiosity about friends but not judgment.
Friendships change rapidly in the teenager’s world and there’s no way an adult can keep up. So instead of trying, ask good open-ended questions and express concern and curiosity without criticizing or judging. Your daughter might be more willing to come to you with friendship worries if you accept her friends as hers and offer your support when she needs it.
3. Talk cause and effect to mitigate risk.
The teenage brain is ready to take risks based on emotions like excitement without linking those thoughts and feelings to logic. Teens have not had much experience with the skill of foresight, looking into the future to anticipate outcomes. But those brain connections can be enhanced with practice and repetition. So whenever you get the opportunity – perhaps you hear about a story in the local news or learn about a neighbor or family friend – discuss cause and effect. The neighbor’s daughter wrecked the family car at the local park. What happened to get her to that point? What other choices could she have made? Why do you think she wrecked? What happens to her now that she’s injured and the car has to be fixed?
4. Establish plans for boundaries and rules together.
Boundaries are critical in any relationship. Discussing rules and boundaries with your teen can help both of you understand and adjust to his or her changing role in your family life. Treating a teen as you might a co-worker when setting boundaries for a work team can show that you trust your child to act responsibly and offers him a participatory role in the creation of rules. He can play a role in learning about and deciding what will keep everyone safe and thriving and you can work together to uphold those boundaries. Power struggles do not need to define a relationship between a parent and teen if they have worked together to create a plan. For more specifics about learning about social media together and developing a family social media agreement, check out this link.
5. Normalize feelings’ talk.
In general, people tend to not discuss feelings. The impression is often that they can sound like signs of weakness. Instead, we tend to focus our conversations on thoughts, ideas, and stories. Particularly for teens whose emotions seem to be more raw and sensitive, it helps to make the expression of feelings a regular part of family conversation. “I was nervous today for my meeting but it all went okay.” This makes discussion of emotions normal. Your son may be more willing to admit to his feelings. And that admission may offer understanding, connection with you, and possibly some relief of the isolation and pressures he might be experiencing.
6. Practice coping strategies.
Did you know that an estimated one-third of teens experience a high-level of ongoing anxiety?4 Since that is the case and since plenty of adults are dealing with anxiety too, how can you model coping strategies in your home life? How can you take deep breaths when upset? Sit down to calm down when you need it. One workshop participant said she and her son say the word “Red!” when they are feeling a rise in anger and need time and space to cool down. How can you help your son or daughter learn to cool down when upset? Check out the Family Emotional Safety Plan for a simple template that will walk you and your family through creating a plan for your most intense moments and how you might handle them with competence.
7. Plan for fights.
Every family fights. Families with teenagers may even fight a bit more considering all of the changes teens are dealing with internally and externally, in their social and school lives. So why not talk about what it means to fight fairly and what is off limits in conflicts? Check out this Fighting Fairly Family Pledge! It lists five easy ways to argue respectfully, ensuring that your relationships are stronger after you’ve worked through disagreements. It also lists from research six types of fighting to avoid, the practices that erode trust with one another.
8. Open the door to healthy risks!
Teens need to take risks in order to develop and learn. Their brains require the practice of making big and small choices and experiencing the consequences. Frances Jensen, MD, author of the book, The Teenage Brain, recalls a story of her son wanting to dye his hair purple.2 Her question to herself when he brought up the issue was, “Will this have a long-term adverse effect? If not, then I’ll support him.” And so she set up an appointment with a hairdresser she knew would do a professional dye job with his purple hair. “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” might be an appropriate motto here. Zip lining, learning ceramics, performing on stage or serving meals at a local soup kitchen are all possibilities for feeding that desire for novelty while making healthy choices.
Finally, make sure that your teen is getting his daily dose of positivity, gratitude, and love! Consider that he’ll likely get a daily dosage of negativity through critics at school whether they are peers, teachers or coaches. He’ll get it through news on the radio or television. He’ll view the troubles of the world on social media. But how much love, connection, and appreciation does he receive and feel daily? Even if he insists on his personal space, have no doubt that he still needs that sense of belonging and loving connection that only you can provide. Parents play a critical role in making sure that the connection teens are craving is fulfilled at least in part through their family life.
1. Princeton Survey Research Associates International. (2015). NBC State of Parenting Survey.
2. Jensen, Frances E. (2015). The Teenage Brain; A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. NY: HarperCollins.
3. Pilyoung, K., Strathearn, L., & Swain, J.E. (2015). The Maternal Brain and Its Plasticity in Humans. Hormones and Behavior. 12; 4C.
4. Denizet-Lewis, B. (2017). Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety? The New York Times Magazine, Oct. 11.
Check out Frontline’s Program, “Inside the Teenage Brain,” on PBS.