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:
We hear from parents all the time that they work hard to support their teen to use their coping skills only to be met with this stuck feeling that the skill won’t actually calm their teen down. This can be scary for parents whose teens are struggling with dark thoughts.
The truth is, deep breaths are just one piece of the puzzle. It’s actually not that easy for teens with big feelings to stop, notice the big feeling in its intensity and take action. Taking a deep breath can work, but a teen has to catch it early or to do it long enough to calm the body’s nervous system, which is activated every time your teen feels a big feeling.
This is quite a challenge for a teen who judges themselves for even having the big feelings in the first place. We work with teens to first acknowledge their emotion and stop the judgment. Saying “don’t worry” or “everyone has feelings” isn’t impactful for teens who feel deeply.
What we help teens realize is that even if you feel big feelings, and feel singled out because of this, there are still people out there like you, and it’s why our groups are so helpful. Teens learn the strategies without venting about their days when they come to group (because that’s counterproductive in DBT, and why we actually call it skills class, not skills group!)
They feel a part of a community without being overwhelmed, and when they witness the skills working for other teens they feel engaged enough to try them at home even if their parents have struggled to get them to do it on their own before. And parents feel supported because in skills class it’s built into the curriculum to achieve motivation for your teen to do the skills and accountability to follow through… Parents are always happy to stop nagging if it means they’re not giving up or giving in!
Teens get the support they need to make actionable change, take ownership over their emotions and actions without shame, and learn to stop the self-judgment and panic.
602 Center St. Suite 209
Mount Airy, MD 21771