Drama, anyone? All kidding aside, your adolescent’s feelings can be intense, painful and negative. Parents can feel overwhelmed and powerless as their teen struggles with feelings that seem out of control. And believe me, these emotions are no fun for your child either!
What is happening is that due to the teen’s brain development moving at such as fast pace, the fight-or-fight limbic system peaks, which makes it hard for her or him to access executive brain functions (logic, reason and good judgment). Even a mild-mannered and mature adolescent will have some issues here. And a teen with maturity issues and emotional injuries will truly suffer in this way.
Fortunately, researchers have identified an internal capacity called emotional regulation that can train the brain to calm down and de-intensify feelings, making them more manageable. And there are skills that can help that happen. So here are some focused skills to talk about with your adolescent to help him or her gain control and mastery over troubling feelings.
These skills are best discussed with your adolescent during calm times, not in the middle of a meltdown. Just sit down and say something like, “You and I have talked about the intense feelings you have been having and how they aren’t helping you feel OK about life. They are hard for the whole family as well. So I have been researching this and found out that there are lots of simple things you can learn to do that will help you feel better and more in control. I’d like to go over these with you, and I can help you with them if you’d like. In fact, it will probably help me as well (and it will).”
Identifying that feelings are not total reality. Teens often think that their emotions reflect absolute truth. But the reality is, while emotions tell us many helpful things, they do not give us the full picture. So while your daughter might feel that everyone in school hates her, it is not actually true. She may feel that the loss of a boyfriend may mean that she will never have love again in her life, but that is not true either. So help her understand that while emotions are important for us in helping us feel alive, connect to other people and celebrate the positive, they often do not accurately reflect reality in its entirety. This can have an immediate impact on your teen, because that which is identified then loses power over us.
Identifying which emotion is in play. Help your daughter know exactly which feeling she is experiencing and name it. This also helps calm down what is called “global catastrophic emotions.” Print out a feelings chart from the Web, such as Parrott’s Classifications, and go over these with your adolescent. Knowing the nuances is a great help. For example, anger can have shadings such as irritation, frustration, annoyance and rage. Help her use the right word, and that will decrease the intensity. It will also help her communicate better in her relationships.
Asking for containment. Strong feelings can be modulated simply by having another person listen empathically and actively with no judgment. This is called containment, a behavior in which the other person “takes in” the emotions of the other in their raw form – and is OK with them. This helps teens feel that they are not alone with these emotions and also shows how someone else experiences these feelings. This will empower teens to handle their emotions as well. Help them to ask for you or a safe friend to just “be there” for them.
Self-soothing. A good technique for any age, this is the skill of calming oneself down while still validating that you are upset. This involves deep breathing, thinking about solutions and getting some space away from the troublesome conversation or event.
Adolescence is simply not an easy time. But you and your teen can use these tools to help feelings become a normal and manageable part of life.