How to Help Older Children and Teens Manage Emotions
When children are little, parents have lots of control over their activities and choices. Parents can directly impact what happens when children act out or become upset. All this changes with teenage emotions.
A parent’s direct control diminishes as young children become teens, whether we like it or not. Responding well to your child’s changing needs is one of the biggest challenges of parenthood.
In dealing with teenage emotions, parenting involves giving your child space to figure some things out through coaching and guiding instead of hands-on intervention. During adolescence, teens naturally seek an increasing amount of autonomy and learn what works and what doesn’t through experience and natural consequences.
But at the same time, parents are still vital to their emotional and physical well-being. It can be a tricky stage to navigate! Understanding your child’s world by asking questions becomes more important. Questions help you learn what they want and what they’ve already tried.
Back-To-School Emotional Stress
The back-to-school transition can be an especially important time to think through how you’ll handle strong emotions — for you and your child.
Your role and your parenting skills will evolve. Three natural abilities that you used with your young children will still be parenting strengths. These are:
- Using intuition
- Self-regulating emotions
Now, you may find you need to expand or shift how you use them to help with teenage emotions.
Skill #1: Noticing Your Older Child’s Behavior
Older children may control some impulsive behavior better than when they were younger. They are less likely to hit, cling or scream to let you know they’re upset. But they are still learning to say what is troubling them. You may notice behavior or new situations that may be signs of emotional struggle that needs support.
Changing peer relationships may become a source of stress when going back to school. This can happen over time, or with a change in routine, such as school breaks. Though natural, these stressful changes can include:
- Wanting less time with a familiar group of friends. You may see them resist or turn away from the same friends they (and you) expected they’d hang out with.
- Feeling unhappy to be apart from familiar friends. Some children want to be with the same group of friends they’ve always known. If your child doesn’t have class with friends, and has to spend most of the day with unfamiliar people, you may see a change in your child’s mood or behavior.
- Becoming more reluctant to say what is troubling them. They may want to begin building more autonomy. They want to start solving their own problems, but may not yet know how to best think things through. They may want to ask you for help, but also feel reluctant to admit the need for help, or fear your disapproval. They may not know how to connect with you in this way.
Skill #2: Using Intuition to Sense When to Step In
Your intuition can be a powerful resource in responding to more complex teenage emotions.
You may need to rely on your gut feelings more, especially if your older child’s behavior under stress is less obvious. But it can be harder to directly intervene and take over a situation. With an older child’s greater independence and autonomy, you may have less direct influence on your child’s choices than you did when your child was younger.
As you tune into stress your child may be having, making yourself available to talk becomes more important. You could insist that they tell you what’s wrong. But that may prove unproductive and damage your relationship in other ways. A range of approaches – from gentle to demanding – may be more helpful in maintaining a positive relationship.
Being Emotionally Available in Age-Appropriate Ways
Your teen may resist spending one-on-one time with you at first. Make extra time available anyway. You may need to update activities according to your child’s developmental stage. Old standbys like going out for ice cream or the park may give way to other activities such as:
- Running errands together
- Asking for help doing something at home together
- Planning to shop or cook together
- Regularly watching a TV show together
Tell Older Children They Can Come to You For Help
Adolescents need to hear from you that they can ask you for help. It’s important to be very clear about your openness and support as children go to high school and college.
Even if you don’t think they’re listening, being direct can be very helpful, with messages like:
- “I want you to know you can talk to me about anything. If you get in trouble or you get worried about something, I’m here.”
- “If you ever get in over your head, I want you to know I’m here for you.”
- “If life throws you a curve ball and you need help, I’ll do my best to help you. You can ask me. Okay?”
Older children need to hear it’s alright to ask for help, because they don’t know if that’s still okay when they’re older.
Skill #3: Self-Regulation
How to Be the Good Listener That Your Older Child Needs
The time may come when you and your child face a serious concern. Parents have to constantly manage their own anxieties if they want to help kids manage theirs.
If a child feels your anxiety as a parent, they are going to be less likely to talk to you. That’s because most children don’t want to upset their parents.
Your child needs you to listen. But you’re struggling not to shout out your first reaction when you hear the difficult news.
Your anxiety for your child is normal. Parents are so eager to help them not make the same mistakes that they did. How can you be trusted to be a good listener?
Holding space for your emotions – and your child’s — becomes increasingly valuable when feelings grow intense. You may need time to simply accept the news at face value, so that a caring, emotionally present response can develop. You don’t have to have an immediate answer for the issue at the moment. Once it’s out there you can address it.
How to Respond Instead of React
Often parents react rather than respond in a vulnerable moment. That’s where I see things go amiss. The child breaks bad news to the parent, or news reaches the parent that their child has gotten into trouble.
Unfortunately, parents can do more harm than good if they act while they’ve lost self-control because of their own anxiety about what the situation means.
You can’t take back hurtful words you say in a reactive moment, no matter how much you want to.
Words that shame and betray a child’s trust and vulnerability include phrases like:
“What were you thinking?
“Where is your brain?”
“You’re never going to make it as an adult.”
“How could you be so dumb?”
Words that criticize, belittle, reject or condemn leave injuries. Then you not only have to handle the issue; the relationship needs repair too.
Ask yourself: Is the situation life threatening, or mainly emotionally triggering? If you’re upset, and the issue can wait a few hours or a day or two, take time to work out a reply that can help rather than hurt your relationship. Unless there is fire or blood, you can give yourself time to figure out your response.
Compassion Helps Both You and Your Child
Do what you need to be able to respond from a place of compassion, not anxiety. You may need to talk to a friend, a doctor, or another advisor you trust. Go for a walk, or a jog to help calm yourself if you need to. Or you may need to sleep on it until the initial sting has gone away.
Phrases that can help safely show your surprise, and give you time to respond include:
- “That news is tough to hear. I wasn’t quite ready. Give me a day to see what we can do.”
- “Okay, I see the situation. We can figure this out. I need to think this through and get back to you with some suggestions tomorrow. “
- “I’m not quite sure the best way to handle this. But I want to help. I need a few hours to think about what to do.”
If you buy yourself time, be sure to follow through within a reasonable time frame. Answer in a day or two; don’t take months.
Maintain Connection In Daily Life
You don’t need a crisis to be a source of support and security for your older child. If your intuition is telling you they are struggling with something, just spending time together can be reassuring. Typically, it’s best not to talk too much. Remain a calm witness.
When your child is ready, and feeling safe with you, then you can talk. Your willingness to accept them, struggles and all, is deeply comforting.
Dismissing Teenage Feelings — Or Anyone’s — Is Not Cool
Witnessing strong emotions can be a challenge for anyone. It can be especially hard to witness emotional reactions you don’t share or empathize with.
The message, “Get over it,” or “Don’t get upset” can be more hurtful than parents realize. It’s easy for a teen to feel rejected for simply feeling what they feel. A sense of rejection can shut them down. Then your efforts to connect and offer support can become even more difficult.
Strong emotions are a part of life. Adults need strategies, too. In a parent-child relationship where emotions are not taboo, you can actually validate each other’s feelings, both ways.
By validating emotions in relationship, we help each other think through what we are feeling. Being able to sit with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings is a powerful boon to mental health.
Sitting with emotions makes them manageable. We can learn that:
- Feelings are okay
- Feelings themselves are not dangerous
- We can think through what we are feeling and why
- We can use emotions to develop a moral compass
- We can use what we feel to decide what is good for us
Helping children of any age manage strong feelings makes them tolerable, so you can navigate life with them.
We Are Here For You
There are times when may not have the ability to think calmly through a situation. IF you need help managing your own or another’s anxiety, that’s when talking to a therapist can help. We offer individual and family counseling in Alexandria Virginia at 703-768-6240.