I know I have been writing a fair amount about working with children lately, but I also work with teens, and I wanted to share a concern that their parents often have. We all know teens are raging with hormones that are super confusing, but that doesn’t make it any less hurtful when they jump down our throats about a seemingly small thing. If you feel like your teen snaps at the drop of a hat about little things, read on…
#1: It’s not little to your teen. What may seem like a benign issue to you is a huge deal. Whether they did their homework is a dig to their ability to be responsible, ‘how was your day’ is met with a thought that ‘you couldn’t possibly understand!’ (see #3). So first, I want you to recognize that your teen is struggling with how to balance independence and needing you to help them meet their goals. This is a tough challenge for the adolescent brain.
#2: Don’t tell your teen what to do when they come to you with a problem. “Have you tried…xyz” is bound to be met with a “YES MOM! ARGH!” Your teen wants to be listened to, not offered solutions, EVEN IF they come to you saying “I don’t know what to do”. ? That doesn’t mean I want you to clam it. Try this instead: if you’re wondering if they’ve tried a solution, flip your question on it’s head: “What have you tried so far to fix it?” This leaves your teen with the ability to take responsibility and share how hard they’ve tried. Give them a minute if they first say “nothing”… they may be too overwhelmed to think.
#3: Don’t reassure them. WHAT?!? It’s your job to help your child feel safe and I’m telling you not to tell them everything is going to be ok?? YUP. Sit in that uncomfy feeling for a minute. ?Your teen doesn’t believe you when you say it (see #1), so it’s not meaningful. Instead, say “You’re wondering if you’ll find a solution”. You’re naming your teen’s thoughts. mic drop.
#4. Validate. Do stuff like I just said above: repeat what your teen is feeling and help them feel like it makes sense to have these feelings given their experiences.
#5. Help them learn to not make things worse with rash decisions. In my teen group that starts in October we will cover over and over again how to not make things worse when your teen feels big feelings. Teens benefit most from learning with/from their peers (back to that brain science stuff: the teenage brain is wired to prioritize social acceptance over ALL ELSE) so group therapy is actually more effective than individual alone for adolescents. Learn more about what we’ll cover here:
Last week we learned that anger is always a secondary emotion. That means we can act as investigators rather than instructors when our children act out in anger. When our child/teen is angry, focusing on their other emotion and redirecting them to express this emotion effectively, will help dissipate their anger.
Usually, we fall into the power-struggle trap of commanding our children to behave: “don’t call me names, that’s disrespectful, go to your room!” This leaves our child/teen feeling powerful that they can hurt our feelings or make us react in anger.
Try these options instead:
Name the underlying feeling and comfort this part of your child.
Let’s use the example of Josie wanting a snack 10 minutes before dinner:
“You are sad that you don’t get a snack. Let’s get a drink of water to cool down those mad feelings.”
Redirect the emotion to an inanimate object:
“It’s hard when you don’t get what you want. That’s disappointing.”
“NO! You’re a bad mom!” (The first time doesn’t always work!)
“Josie, I know you’re disappointed you don’t get a snack right now. You can pretend the doll is me and call the doll names, but I am not for name-calling.”
Redirecting your child’s impulses toward an inanimate object is much like grumbling under our breath or in our heads for adults. Children don’t always have that level of self-control readily accessible when angry. Give them an outlet to maintain the verbal aggression without directing it at you. This is the first step to teaching them they can control their behavior.
Once your child follows through on this task, report their actions back to them:
“Ooh, you’re so mad you are calling her names!” This demonstrates to your child you are interested in understanding their feelings by naming them. They feel heard, and you are no longer the target of their anger. It is this part of the step that does not reinforce the aggression like people believe punching a pillow does for managing anger. When kids/teens feel heard, they feel less likely to act out.
Praise their efforts to calm down: “It was so hard to stop yelling at mommy, but you did it! You chose to yell at your doll instead.”
For teens, redirecting them to write down what they feel, or to play music to suit their mood is another good option, even if that means blasting the tunes. (“You can choose to write or draw about your disappointment, or play loud music to calm down. Please do not use that language when you are angry.”) Be sure to comment positively once they come back from their room on the effort it took for them to calm down. “You were really pissed, and you wanted to keep calling me names but you didn’t. I’m proud of you for that, that’s hard to do.”
Once your child/teen is calm, you can discuss with them how you feel when they use those words.
For teens especially, it could be very helpful for them to hear how those words bring up memories for you. Instead of in the moment via lecture-mode, here is the teachable moment. This is when you can come up with solutions to decrease the problem next time. Perhaps that means setting up a calm-down corner on the ground floor, or in their room. Notice how I said decrease, not eliminate when addressing the problem. Your child will yell again. They will call you names. Your responses will help eliminate the problem, their calm-down tools will help them feel more capable when upset.
I hope this is helpful. If you would like more tips about managing anger, or other child/teen emotions let me know in the comments!
I hope you took some time this week to figure out what you’ll be implementing regularly to care for yourself, and identifying what, if any, activity for your child has to be shuffled around in order to make it happen. Bonus points for already doing it!
So, when you thought about the memories these mean names remind you of, what feelings came up? Helplessness? Vulnerability? Sadness? Disappointment? Hurt? This insight will come in handy…
Here is the next step in responding to your child when they call you names:
Understand the Brain
Children do not have the cognitive capacity to think ahead when upset. Their frontal lobe, the part of the brain that manages impulses, is immature.
But wait, Megghan, MY KID KNOWS these words piss me off! Yes, after they explode, they remember, or it registers, that what they did is hurtful. They are intelligent enough to talk to you about it later and demonstrate understanding. When we assume this means they know what they’re doing in the moment, what we miss here is the understanding that children need empathy, repetition and support to manage their angry impulses. If we do not acknowledge their brain development, we jump to shame-oriented parenting strategies (spanking, time-out, writing lines, soap, etc.)
Children cannot develop and express empathy unless they feel understood. They cannot understand, nor give two sh*ts about your feelings, and whether their words hurt you, if you do not first identify and sit with theirs. So, last week I asked you to do some self-exploration. If we brush off our own emotions regularly, say our kids’ words don’t hurt, then we cannot acknowledge their hurt.
Notice how I am not mentioning much about anger in this post already.
Anger is ALWAYS a secondary emotion. There is always another feeling underneath the anger. This feeling makes us feel more vulnerable, and thus we automatically look for a way to feel powerful, hence, the angry outburst. This comes more easily than saying “I’m disappointed!”
Think about it: Our initial impulse when disappointed, hurt, upset, is to lash out. As (mostly) responsible adults, we manage this, stuff it aside, or grunt rather than act on it. Why? Because we know what the consequences will be if we don’t.
Get Down on Your Kid’s Level, and Name Their Other Feelings
Now that we know anger is secondary, it’s important to do some investigating regarding what other emotions our children are feeling in the moment. Pro Tip: upset is a good one. It’s often safe enough for teens, because it is in the same emotion family as anger. As you practice naming feelings other than ‘mad,’ your child will begin to correct you. This will help you start to nail your guesses, but either way, your child hears you focused on their feelings, and less on their behavior, which in turn decreases the intensity and length of their meltdowns.
Name ‘upset, disappointed, hurt, etc.’ and then name the anger. Doing both is important. This helps your child/teen switch the focus to the feeling behind their anger, moving the processing of the feelings along.
Josie wants a snack, but it’s 10 minutes before dinner. You tell her no, redirect her to the choices she has after dinner, and she still gets upset. She’s not hungry for dinner! She wants those cookies NOW. So, she calls you stupid and the dinner gross. Typically, this would lead to you sending her to her room and sometimes giving some retort back about how ungrateful she is about your hard work in the kitchen. Maybe in this moment it struck a cord because you’re not sure how dinner will turn out, (you’re trying a new recipe) and you’re already vulnerable about the meal.
Here is where you can name her feeling for her:
Mom, bending down to meet Josie: “Josie, I know you’re disappointed you don’t get a snack right now. You’re mad that you can’t have what you want right now.”
That second sentence probably sounds familiar. If you’ve been following my blog, you’ve been focusing on naming feelings for your children. Hopefully, the primary feeling, disappointment, is more easily recognized here, as she can’t have what she wants. By kneeling or bending down we decrease the sense of powerlessness our children feel when a big tall adult is telling them ‘no.’ It sends the same comforting message we instinctually give when our child is physically hurt, or they are sad. Emotional hurt or disappointment is not much different of a feeling. Responding in a similar manner will help your child feel understood.
We ‘bend down’ by going over to our teen and making eye contact. Use our body language to indicate full attention and care to their feelings– our toes follow our nose. This body posture of facing our teen with our whole body indicates their emotions matter enough to attend to, even when we aren’t giving them what they are asking for.
“I know you’re upset you can’t borrow the car this weekend. You were hoping to go to ______, and you’re mad that you can’t drive yourself.”
Next week we will focus more on how to redirect your child/teens anger and support them in expressing it in a more effective manner. Acknowledging the emotions behind the anger is the first step toward teaching them how to manage their emotions more effectively, and how to have a conversation with them about why their words hurt so much.
Are there other parenting topics you’d like to hear more about? Let me know in the comments!
Whether is a*hole, jerk, dummy, or stupid, it hurts when our kids/teens lash out in anger. No matter the age, correcting the use of the ‘bad word’ is probably not going to diffuse the situation in the moment. Focusing on the emotions behind the words will, however.
1. Check On Yourself
No, not ‘check yourself’, check in ON yourself. This series is not only about how to respond to your child, but also a check in to all my parents out there to make sure you’re comforting yourself. Parenting is hard as hell. PLEASE do something for yourself regularly so that you can be able to take that verbal tomato thrown at you. Reading your book club book that you don’t actually like doesn’t count.
Paint your nails, take a yoga class and actually go, whittle some wood, dig in the yard and plant something you can feel proud to watch grow (only if gardening is actually your thing). None of this Keeping up with the Jones’ hobby shit. If you don’t like to knit, stop doing that to relax. Find some sort of self-care activity (I’m sure there’s a Pinterest list about it) that sends the message to yourself that you are worth the 30-60 minutes a week. Yes, you heard me; monthly parent’s night out isn’t going to cut it.
As parents, it’s easy to prioritize our kids’ sports practices, scouts meetings, and other events over our own interests.
Cool it. Find a friend who can carpool. Your kid will benefit more from a parent who can keep their cool when they are overwhelmed than one that shows up to ALL THE THINGS but can’t keep their shit together at home.
Feel like I’m going too far with this post?
Let me ask you this: why do we take in the parenting blogs that tell us all the things we’re doing wrong for our kids, the things we SHOULD prioritize for their healthy development, and yet dismiss ones that encourage we prioritize our own well-being?
In order to forgive ourselves for the times we do lose our shit at home, and do better next time, we have to be available for change. We cannot be available for change as parents if we are in survival mode.
2. Name the Feeling
I’ve written about empathy before. I will write about it again. Here, I’m talking to you about naming your feelings. What besides hurt are you experiencing when you hear those words your child flings at you? Do you hear your 5th grade bully saying you’re no good? Or your caregivers as a child when you didn’t measure up?
Experience that pain.
Maybe that means you take a longer shower and let the tears flow, but either way, understand why these words are so powerful for your children when they use them. It will help you teach them why they’re not appropriate later.
You are responsible for your own emotional management.
If you regularly treat yourself with compassion, it will be easier to let your child’s poor choice of words when they are hurting mean less to you. With this, you can avoid lecturing, time-outs, writing lines, and all those other punishment and shame-oriented responses that are based in anger, frustration, or exasperation when our children are not able to manage their emotions.
Want to know more about what and when to respond to your child when they use this language? Next week I’ll cover that.
Despite my cuss words above, I’m not going to say it’s no big deal that your kids are using these bad words. But, as you can probably tell, the soap in my mouth at 7 didn’t do shit. (Sorry mom!)
How I Became Interested in Animal-Assisted Play Therapy
For a period of time at a Residential Treatment Center I worked at it was ‘bring your dog to work day’ any day you felt like it. So I, having just gotten a dog myself, was super excited when he reached the four-month mark and was allowed to come. This was a very selfish goal of mine. I wanted to bring my puppy to work–how amazing would that be? What I didn’t know was how effective Porter’s personality would be with these youth who had such extreme behaviors.
Dogs are Great Listeners
Their aversion to talking about their feelings based on their history of neglect and abuse was pronounced, but when you put a dog in the room (and one who was fluffy and friendly and calm… almost never) you are able to help them feel comfortable enough to process what hurt them in order to build skills to help them make it through their days.
I saw hardened, aggressive, outwardly mean teens melt to the floor with this puppy in their lap. And as he licked their faces they giggled. Now, as a play therapist I believe there is inherent good in all people, especially children. Porter just helps bring it out a little faster than I can.
Dogs Can’t Call You a Piece of Shit.
And so it’s a lot easier to build a relationship with a kind, friendly animal and transfer that relationship to its kind, friendly therapeutic handler. It’s harder for teens and kids to take the look a dog is giving them and interpret judgmental words out of it. If they do, they usually mention it to the handler. However, when I raise an eyebrow, or open my eyes wide in interest, they are less likely to ask me whether I approve of them, even if I am expressing genuine curiosity in the moment. This blunt inquiry takes much more time in human relationships.
Kind and Friendly, Yes, But He’s Also A Goof
No, Porter is not the perfect therapy dog. He won’t be visiting an ‘old folks’ home’ or hospital anytime soon– he is just too wiggly. But for children who struggle to maintain their behavior, who struggle to stay calm, and who struggle to slow down, he gives them the perfect opportunity to be the teacher. They can feel proud of what they know they are capable of doing. And Porter continues to learn as he grows out of his lab-puppyhood, which may or may not take a decade.
Now that we have an understanding of how your child experiences the world, we can help support him/her.
Talk to your child about the new experience when you first receive the invitation, and then starting 3 days before the event, discuss it each day. Spend a few minutes talking about what is to come and focus on the facts, along with solutions to possible problems:
“We will go inside and check in at the counter. Then we will get bowling shoes and pick out a ball. There will probably be loud noises and kids running around having fun. We will pack your iPod so you can take a break if it gets too loud or too busy. Let’s go make a playlist to help you stay calm if you need it.” Redirecting the conversation to something she can control in the moment, like making a playlist, will help her feel empowered in solving her own problems.
If you can, try going to the alley in advance just to walk around and expose your child to the environment. The 5-minute experience inside the building can help decrease the amount of stimulation she feels when she walks in for the party. The layout will be one less thing to get used to. You can use this time to pick out a spot that would be good for that music break when she’s not in panic overload.
Be sure to pack that mp3 player, along with other items to help your child feel secure in this new environment. A few ideas: stress ball, stuffed animal, fidget toy. These items can help your child take a break while staying in the environment, which is the goal.
Think to yourself, what is a reasonable expectation for your child as you work to push her out of her comfort zone? That she stays for 30 minutes? Takes at least one break before you leave early? Plays one full round of bowling? If your child regularly refuses new situations, and melts down wanting to leave immediately, staying for the whole party the first time is not a reasonable goal, even with these new tricks up your sleeve. Again, as you are slowly introducing her to the activity, you must also adjust your goals for her.
5. Validate and (gently) Push
You will go to that party. It may be overwhelming for your kid, but you will have a plan. Validate her when she says she doesn’t want to go. Hold the expectation that you will still go, even if it seems like it’s too much.
I know you’re wondering if you can keep this up. It’s overwhelming to think that you will have to do this for your child forever. BREATHE. You won’t have to. Think of these extra steps as an investment.
You are investing in your child’s ability to push beyond anxiety and discomfort.
You are investing in her ability to self-soothe. She will learn to generalize these skills in new experiences in the future.
Most importantly, you are investing in your relationship, as she will feel understood as you acknowledge these experiences really are quite tough for her.
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