On the go? Listen to our blog instead of reading it.
Andrew Willis-Garcés, MA/ED, LPC
We’ve all been there: The eyes cast down, or pointed at you, burning with pain. The discolored cheeks and defensive posture. Difficulty translating thoughts and feelings into words, as if there’s a traffic jam somewhere in the prefrontal cortex. In fact, there is: neurologists like Robert Sapolsky, professor at Stanford University, now believe that teenagers have more difficulty regulating their emotions due to dramatic changes in their “white matter” during adolescence:
In an adult, the frontal cortex steadies the activity of parts of the limbic system, a brain region involved in emotion; in contrast, in the teenage brain, the limbic system (the fight or flight area of your brain) is already going at full speed, while the frontal cortex is still trying to make sense of the assembly instructions. One result of this imbalance is that emotions are more intense. Stick people in a brain scanner and show them pictures of faces expressing strong emotions. In the adult, there is activation of a prime limbic structure, the amygdala; shortly after, there is activation of frontal cortical regions, which damp the amygdaloid response: “OK, calm down, it’s just a picture of an angry/sad/happy/scared face, not the real thing.” But in the teenager, the frontal cortical response is muted, and the amygdala’s response is augmented. That means emotional highs are higher, and the lows are lower.
Your teenager might be disappointed about their grades, or perceived rejection by a friend, or having to finish their chores before they can leave the house. Whatever the “trigger”, now they’re upset, which is often a difficult time to reason with them.
Here are five suggestions for being with them during difficult moments, that might help to reduce their defensiveness and support them to have more options for dealing with stress:
- Breathe! & Remember – Modeling emotional self-regulation is a great way to encourage mindful self-awareness in teenagers – which can often begin with breathing, using the inhale to remind yourself, “s/he’s having a neurotransmitter traffic jam, it must be hard to lose all those synaptic connections – his/her sides of the brain are literally having trouble communicating”. Or another reminder of how you want to engage your teenager in this moment.
- Don’t “Catch” Them In A Contradiction – We’re often tempted to point out that things aren’t as bad as they think, or draw attention to inaccuracies or contradictions in their statements. It’s good to remember in the moment that your teenager is likely “flooded” with stress hormones, and as a result is literally not thinking clearly. Pointing out inconsistencies is only likely to put them on the defensive, anyway, but generally this isn’t a time that logic will prevail. Instead of closely tracking the content of what they’re saying, try to follow the unexpressed feelings that might be causing their distress.
- Describe How You Think They’re Feeling – Teens, especially boys, often have trouble describing their feeling states in words. We can help! “It looks like you’re really frustrated right now, maybe even a little sad. I wonder if you’re still upset about me keeping you from leaving the house this afternoon. Am I getting that right?” Sometimes I’ll even try to mirror their posture and expressions, as a way of signaling my attempt at empathy.
- Hold the Questions, and the Lecture, for Later – When they’re upset, teens often don’t want to answer questions about their mood, or the source of their distress. Statements like “I’m available if you want someone to listen” might be more supportive in the moment than asking them to tell you what’s troubling them. Likewise, some parents might be tempted to soothe by way of a lecture about the good times that are just ahead. Simply being present with your teen while they’re in distress is a way of showing them they’ve got company during difficult times.
- Gentle Persistence – Whatever your goals for being with your teen – that they feel listened to, holding up your set limits or boundaries they’re raging against, supporting them to have more awareness of their own feelings – picking an approach and gently staying firm is often a good strategy. Teens who have developed stoic or highly emotional defenses aren’t likely to “melt” quickly. But demonstrating to them (rather than telling them) that you’ll validate their feelings and accompany them during difficult times is likely to increase their trust, and might give support them to have more self-awareness of their own emotional responses.
I hope you found this post helpful. If you would like advice specific to your family or your teen, please feel free to contact us to make a counseling appointment. Obviously, we love teen counseling but we also offer couples counseling, family and parenting counseling, child counseling, and therapies for specific issues like anger management through personal growth counseling and ADHD counseling.