Going from parenting a child to parenting a teen can be pretty abrupt sometimes. It can seem that overnight, your child has been replaced by a completely different, hard-to-get-along-with person. Everyone is different, and not every girl or boy fits a mold, but there are some things we’ve learned about teens in general and girls in particular:
Girls can get very emotional, very fast
Boys get very emotional too. It’s part of being a teenager. Some of this is because hormones can “raise the volume” on emotional responses; some of it is because the parts of the brain that control executive functioning (cool reasoning, slowing down impulsive responses) are still just developing in teens. Boys tend to bottle those feeling up, or express them physically, or with peers. Many girls are comfortable with sharing feelings in general, and get very expressive during an argument, sometimes in dramatic ways. This can mean yelling, crying and fierce arguing, very quickly turning a discussion into a screaming match.
What is with these reactions?
A couple of things are key to remember. When feelings seem way out of proportion to the problem, your teen may be pushing hard to get the outcome she wants. Or, it could be a situation that seems really important because of where the teen is standing. You know that friends worth having won’t judge your teen on her popularity, for example. She doesn’t really believe that yet, so the issue of having the same curfew as her friends is much more life-or-death to her. Also, your teen may be dealing with the stress of coping in a new, scary world. She may feel safest unloading that frustration in a place that will always like and accept her-home.
Tip: Reflect back the feeling you heard without agreeing or disagreeing with it. “I hear you’re really angry about your curfew, and you’re worried your friends won’t want to hang out with you”. “Yeah, I am”
Anthony Wolf, PhD, who writes about teens and parents, suggests that teen girls sometimes use these emotional scenes to handle their mixed feelings about separating from parents. Teens still want to be taken care of by their parents, just like when they were little. But these feelings are opposite from being independent, so wanting closeness becomes scary and upsetting. The screaming and yelling may be a way for a teen to feel connected, but at the same time convince herself that she’s separate from her parents.
So what can parents do with all this? We have some suggestions:
During a conflict, most of us want to feel that someone is listening to us and trying to understand, even if they don’t agree with us. When your teens’ emotions get too big and overwhelming, hearing a parent “reflect” the feelings back (“You’re really angry”) reassures your teen that you’re still listening and that you’re not judging her feelings or her right to have them. This takes you out of the argument and puts your teen in charge of her own feelings. Don’t worry about sounding dorky; it still helps.
Tip: Be supportive without taking on the problem. “My friends will think I’m a dork, and I’ll never have friends at this stupid school, and it’ll be all your fault!” “I hope you find a way to work it out. I believe in you.”
Don’t take on the blame
Sometimes a teen may try to shift blame on to the parent for setting a limit. Parents should listen to requests to change a rule, and compromise when a teen’s reasons make sense. If you’ve listened and you still feel your limit is reasonable, stick to it. You can do this without taking the blame for all the things your teen is worried will happen.
When your teen’s response seems way out-of-proportion to the problem, get curious about what else is going on. With a little encouragement, your teen may be able to tell you what else is bothering her and take the steam out of the argument. Even if she doesn’t tell you, at least she’s heard that you are trying to understand.
Tip: After you reflect the feelings you hear, ask calmly what else might be going on. “I hear you’re angry about curfew, but you also seem stressed out. I wonder if other things are bothering you too.”
Set limits on language, but don’t take it personally
Teens will sometimes stoop to pretty low stuff in an argument, especially when they feel powerless or frustrated. Girls are often good at reading other peoples’ feelings. This quality, which made for a very sweet and thoughtful pre-teen, can make for a teenager who is good at saying just the thing to hurt your feelings.
Tip: Don’t take the bait. When you can be calm, remind your teen that it is not OK to be mean or use foul language. Make sure you follow those rules too.
Afterwards, a parent may feel devastated while their teen thinks, “What’s the big deal? I just got angry”. If your teen starts throwing emotional grenades (“No one can live with you, that’s why Mom left”), you must not react to them. Chances are, your teen doesn’t actually think anything like that, but is feeling out of control or wants to get you to respond. Reacting takes the conversation off track, usually to a worse place. DO NOT get pulled into a discussion about the divorce, or your parenting, etc.
Take a break
When an argument seems like it’s going to get out of control, emotionally or physically, take a break! Leave the room and calm down. If your teen is really hooked into the argument, you may need to get away for a while to stop your teen from following you and continuing to escalate. Leave the house if you have to. Explain that you’ll come back and finish the conversation when you’re both calmer, and then make sure that you do.
Tip: Take a break before an argument gets out of hand. It’s important that everyone stays safe. If your teen threatens to hurt herself or someone else, you or your teen can call Huck House, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 294-5553. If an argument turns violent, call 911 or the local police.
Remember, when you show your teen girl that her feelings won’t overwhelm you, you help her practice not letting them overwhelm her, either.