Teens and their BIG Emotions

October 2020 | by rebecca stewart

Things we are mostly aware of heading into parenthood:  

  • Babies, super cute and snuggly but not known for letting you get your sleep, despite the incredible amount of Zzzs they actually catch.  
  • Toddlers get a tough rap due to the whole terrible twos and threenager situation; fortunately, their epic cuteness is their saving grace when mom and dad have hit the wall. Lack of sleep, still totally a thing.  
  •  Preschoolers, so precious with their growing vocabularies and sense of self, still prone to the occasional, don’t-know-what-to-do-with-these-big-feelings meltdown.  
  • Grade schoolers, apparently these years are breezier because we don’t hear much about them.  
  • And then there are the Teens (and now the tweens); MUCH is spoken about this phase of life in the parenthood. "Just wait 'til she's/he’s a teenager,” is frequently and gravely spoken with trepidation laced through the words and facial expressions. And talking about not knowing what to do with the BIG emotions, hello teenagers with your still-developing brains.  

It's that last point that we're latching onto today and why we turned to Gwen Felten, MA, LCPC, PC at Northwest Counseling for some tips on helping parents both understand and help their teen handle their Big Emotions. Ms. Felten specializes in anxiety, depression, and trauma, working with adults, teens, and children.  

While these Big Emotions might have a tendency to be looked at as negative emotions, Ms. Felten prefers to identify them as "uncomfortable emotions." She notes that people generally don't like uncomfortable emotions and often have not been taught how to properly deal with emotions like anger, sadness, and anxiety; rather, they want to eliminate them. She explains, "The problem is we can't eliminate emotions that are hard-wired into us. These emotions are not bad. Often what people 'do' with their behavior when experiencing an emotion, that is what is unhealthy or possibly harmful."  

So, what is the proper way to handle those uncomfortable emotions? Ms. Felten suggests: 

Have family discussions on how to deal with anger/sadness/fear/anxiety.  

  • It’s important, though, to have these meetings when everyone is relatively calm – not in the heat of the moment.  
  • Don’t wait for the emotional “explosion,” be proactive in your education and conversations.  

Develop safe spaces people can go to in the house when they are upset. Game plan what they can do.  

  • Get physical- Go for a walk around the block, do jumping jacks, burpees, tear up an old phonebook… 
  • Let the emotions out- Cry it out in the shower, scream outside, journal it out…  
  • Sensory sensations- Lay down and take deep breaths, count to 10, use anything sensory like doTerra oils, fabric, calming pictures…

Parents need to role model how to deal with uncomfortable emotions in a healthy way. “WE are our child’s greatest example.”  

In Ms. Felten’s experience, teens who come to counseling with emotional regulation issues often have a parent who struggles with regulating emotions. "Parents need to do their work as well and have a plan for how the family handles uncomfortable emotions. Allow children to develop safe ways to deal with emotions."  

We wondered, then, as a parent, what is the best course of action in terms of how to respond to our teens' Big Emotions? But first, we must acknowledge where our teens are at developmentally. Ms. Felten explains that our brains develop from the inside out, and the last part of our brain to develop is the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for executive functioning, like governing our behavior. It is believed that the brain is not fully developed until age 25, so parents need to remember that when dealing with teens, “we are dealing with a brain that is not fully developed and therefore not fully equipped.” Patience and helping our kids grow in their emotional development are key.  

Armed with that knowledge, Ms. Felten takes us through the best course of parental action in the face of those emotional outbursts:  

The first point of consideration is what happens when a teen’s emotional outburst is returned with a yelling parent or with the threatening of consequences in the heat of the moment. 

  • "When someone is having an emotional outburst, they downshift from their thinking brain (cerebral cortex) to their emotional brain (part of the limbic system)." This basically means the emotional brain hijacks the thinking brain, so… 
  • When a BIG emotion teen meets a BIG emotion parent, there is not a thinking brain in the room; it's here that Ms. Felten sees the most damage done to relationships.  

So, if your teen is in the midst of a Big Emotion, Ms. Felten advises parents to: 

  • Stay calm, do not threaten consequences. (This doesn’t mean consequences can’t be given at a later time, but we need our thinking brain intact to be talking reasonable consequences).  
  • Redirect your teen to a different room in the house where you are fairly confident they will be safe.  
  • Utilize the list of what they can do to cope with said Emotions.  
  • Allow the Big Emotion to pass before engaging with them to deal with the issue that precipitated the Big Emotion.  
  • “It might be best to let this rest for 24-hours until all family members can talk calmly about the issues.”  
  • And don't simply take the Big Emotions at face value; teens have a TON going on in their lives, don't dismiss their stressors.  
  •  If physical safety is at stake, call the police.  

Finally, some things that we need to take into consideration in parenting this generation of teens. Ms. Felten reminds us that, while our teens are facing similar situations as previous generations – rumors, teen envy, social issues, drama, and relationship issues – those issues are magnified in ways that no other generation has ever experienced. “The problem nowadays,” says Ms. Felten, "is it comes at them at lightning speeds." Previous generations who had issues at school were able to come home and get a break, but with technology, teens and adults are essentially on information overload.  

Ms. Felten explains that "technology overload does not allow our brains and nervous system to calm brains down," so we need to develop ways to help our teens find the benefit of calming their brains down. When we don't allow for that downtime and calming period, "we are putting ourselves at greater risk for emotional dysregulation and BIG Emotions."  

Certainly, the teen years do come with their challenges (as does every stage and phase), but it also comes with plenty of wonderful, remarkable moments. As with most things in this life we’re living, communication is essential, and in this case, communication coupled with understanding and a fully loaded emotional toolbox will go a long way to adding to the upsides.  

Originally printed in the October 2020 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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