Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

Overreactions in adolescence.

When little things trigger blow ups big issues are involved.

They occur in every family - blow-ups or overreactions where parent or adolescent makes a big emotional deal over something that appears too small to warrant the explosion.

Why the exaggerated or disproportionate response? What's going on? They need to find out.

Overreactions happen like this. One person gets inexplicably upset or offended by some apparently "trivial" event that doesn't seem to justify such a strong response.  "Why are you acting to hurt and angry over something so small? Why make such big deal over such a little thing?" 

Often, after such an outburst, the exploding person feels as embarrassed, foolish, or as regretful as the person exploded at feels confused, unjustly treated, or even hurt. 

Consider an overreaction to an adolescent by a parent.

"All I said was," objects the teenager, "that I didn't think you knew what you were talking about on this subject, and you went off on me like a bomb about how I was never to speak to you this way again! What did I say that was so upsetting?"

The explosion over, both parties felt inclined not deal with the incident any further, to let emotional intensity subside, to forget about the unpleasantness and move on.  However, this decision to leave bad enough alone (and ignored) is a mistake because overreactions have so much to teach. 

Buried beneath the puzzling surface of what occurred there are usually significant issues to be productively discussed.  Consider five common types of overreactions, each one suggestive of a different set of issues that need attention in the exploder's life.

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First, there are overreactions that occur as a function of SURPRISE.  Explains the parent: "I just didn't expect you to question my qualifications for what I said because you usually take me at my word."  An assumption has been violated. 

Second, there are overreactions that occur as a function of SUPPRESSION, from emotional build-up due to stress.  "I just didn't need anybody else questioning my opinion after being grilled by my boss at work today.  I had to act like she is always right when I sure didn't feel that way.  I guess your comment was just one question too many."  Emotional pressure from accumulated upset is finally released.

Third, there are overreactions that occur as a function of SIMILARITY.  "When you questioned what I had to say, it was just like what my father used to do.  I could never express any opinion to that man without having him discredit what I said."  A current response revives old memories that still cause pain.

Fourth, there are overreactions that occur as a function of SYMBOLISM.  "Your questioning my opinion just goes to show that you have no respect for me as your parent.  Maybe you never have!" A current response represents a general issue that remains unresolved. 

And fifth, there are overreactions that occur as a function of a painful SUPPOSITION. "Based on your questioning I assumed you were also going around raising questions about my competence to other people." A current response provokes imagining something worse that is actually isn't going on.

Or consider an overreaction of an adolescent to a parent. "All I said," wondered the parent, "was that you might look better wearing less tight-fitting clothes and you went off on me! What did I say that was so upsetting?"

Maybe the overreaction was a function of SURPRISE. Explains the teenager: "You usually tell me how good I look when I go out so I didn't expect you to question how I was dressed!" The adolescent is caught off guard.

Maybe the overreaction was a function of SUPPRESSION. "All day long I've had different ‘supposed' friends making cracks about me, and by the time you had your say I had all of that I could take!" The adolescent has been storing up the emotional fall out from negative remarks.

Maybe the overreaction was a function of SIMILARITY. "Our Drill Team instructor is constantly getting on our case about looking our best, and it just felt like that kind of correction all over again!" The adolescent feels the parent is acting just like another critical adult.

Maybe the overreaction was a function of SYMBOLISM. "I felt your comment just showed how I can never look physically good enough in your eyes!" The adolescent feels the parent's remark represents some larger disapproval.

Maybe the overreaction was a function of a painful SUPPOSITION. "Based on your comment I figured you really think I'm too fat and were trying to find an indirect way of saying so!" The adolescent imagines something hurtful that isn't so.

Overreactions usually signify that there's an important issue in the relationship in need of clarification.  

So whenever one occurs, it behooves the person exploding, whether parent or adolescent, to ask him or herself some questions to locate the source of the outburst (the type of overreaction) and discuss that with the other person. 

Sorting out an overreaction to discover what is really going on, there are salient questions that can be asked. 

"What was I assuming was going to happen?"  (Did I explode because of surprise?) 

"What else has been going on that has been upsetting me?"  (Did I explode because of stress I have suppressed?) 

"What did this incident remind me of?"  (Did I explode because of similarity to some past offense or hurt?) 

"What did this event represent to me?" (Did I explode because of what the event symbolized?")  

"What was I imagining for the worse?" (Did I explode because of what I supposed that wasn't so?)

An overreaction can have a lot of good lessons to teach. What seems inexplicable or inappropriate at the time usually makes a lot of important sense once it is truly understood.  Those "little things" that trigger overreactions are really "big things" in disguise. That's why blow-ups are worth talking about after they are over -- to understand the issues that set them off.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week's entry: Adolescence and emotion

 

 

Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Austin, Texas. His most recent books are: The Connected Father, The Future of Your Only Child, and Stop Screaming.

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