Listening to Your Teen’s Big Feelings

Do you ever get stuck wondering what to do when your teenager behaves pleasantly, respectfully, or gratefully? Of course not. You enjoy their presence, engage in easy banter or a fun activity, and tell yourself what a great kid you have/what a great parent you are.

What about when your teen acts upset, angry, or hurt? Can you still enjoy their presence and tell yourself what a great kid you have/what a great parent you are?

Here’s the difference in these 2 scenarios: during the first one part of you is noticing ‘good’ feelings and during the second one you’re probably noticing you feel ‘bad’.

This is important to get: the difference is not the way your child is behaving, the difference is how YOU are FEELING.

 

An example of dialogue with a happy teenager

Teen: You’ll never guess what!

Parent: What?

Teen: Remember the next-door neighbour of the Browns who said hi to me a few times when I cut their grass when the Browns were in Florida? I saw her randomly at the 7-11 during lunch break today and she asked if I could cut her lawn too!

Parent: Hey wow!

Teen: This is so great because I want to do more lawn work this summer. Remember that next-level hockey camp I’ve been telling you about? I really want to go, and this way I can help pay for it.

Parent: You sound serious. Way to go with the new job!

Teen: I gave the woman – Phyllis – my number and she said she would call me tonight.

Parent: I bet she was impressed by your cheerful attitude.

Perhaps this parent feels proud, and pleased their teenager is demonstrating financial responsibility. It’s easy to imagine how we would feel in that situation.

An example of dialogue with an angry teenager

Teen: I hate Mr. Collingwood! I hope he gets run over by a truck.

Parent: Wow! You sound angry.

Teen: I am! He was a total idiot today in English!

Parent: Was he really?

Teen: Yes he was! Completely! He said the hip hop lyrics I used in my poetry assignment where we were supposed to quote a song weren’t appropriate. And then he asked me to stay late so that we could discuss the assignment in case I didn’t understand it. I understood it perfectly well the first time!

Parent: You hate staying late.

Teen: All my friends were already gone and I had to walk home alone!

Parent: That sucks. I know you love walking and talking together after a long day of sitting in class.

What is this second parent feeling? It’s hard to tell because the parent never states their feeing in the dialogue. Neither does the parent in the first dialogue – did you notice that?

A second similarity between the 2 parents is that they both seem to have the same ‘inner dialogue’, which goes something like this:

What’s going on for my teenager? How is my kid feeling? I want to be supportive of this person I deeply love.

Let’s contrast this with some possible ‘inner dialogue’ that could have been happening instead:

It’s about time you made some money to help pay for things. What were you doing in 7-11 at lunch time? Weren’t you supposed to go for math tutoring?

That is a terrible way to talk about your teacher! I’m sure Mr. Collingwood was only trying to help you. What hip hop song did you use for the assignment?

 

The golden rule of talking to teens

KEEP THEM TALKING.

If your teenager is sharing something with you, the biggest hurdle of talking to teens has already been cleared and your job is to do everything you can to keep them talking. Whether they are excited and pleased or outraged and frustrated, your job is to listen in a way that will ensure they don’t feel judged or attacked.

If your teen feels emotionally safe, they will keep talking. Your job as their parent is to create and maintain an atmosphere where emotional safety can happen.

Teens don’t always have awesome emotional regulation, but then again neither do we. At least they have the excuses of still-developing brains and hormonal changes. Do you know what helps people of all ages regulate their emotions? Practice. And that’s the second thing I want you to give your teen – opportunities to practice regulating their emotions. Not by saying stuff like, “just be reasonable; quit making such a big deal out of this; you know what I would do…” but by actually listening to them and demonstrating your own regulated emotions.

What this can look like is an acceptance of the anger of our teen with the same relaxed attention we have for them when they share victories, just like in the sample dialogues above.

Chances are good they won’t talk with you long anyway. Teenagers are biologically driven to separate from their parents, which we see when they seek privacy and prove their independence. So when they are talking to you, take full advantage of that precious opportunity to learn about their inner life, their priorities, their plans!

In Shonda Rhimes’ TED talk about how playing with her kids saved her life, she explains that her young daughters really only want a small amount of her attention at a time. She says, “If I’m not a ladybug or a piece of candy I’m invisible after 15 minutes. If I can get my 13 year-old to talk to me for 15 minutes I’m parent of the year!

When your angry teenager starts to dramatically tell you about their latest upset it’s a challenge to listen. But it will not be an unending task. If you can be attentive with an authentically relaxed attitude, your teen will use those few minutes as a chance to process their thoughts and their feelings, and to fill up their emotional fuel tank with your caring.

Don’t try to jump into the conversation to inject ‘common sense’ or encourage her/him to see it from their teacher’s perspective. Will that help your teenager feel safe and keep talking? Could it possibly turn into an argument?

This can be summed up by something I saw on Facebook the other day:

NEVER in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down.