Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

The Emotional Minefield of Adolescence

Parents need to understand Adolescent Feeling Factors behind emotional outbursts

The question amounted to this. “Why is my teenager so much more easily upset than as a child?”

I believe the answer is because negotiating the adolescent passage is like crossing an experiential minefield with hidden emotional explosives buried all along the way. The young person has to watch their step, often reacting with unexpected and intense expressions of feeling for causes that can be hard for parents to fathom and tolerate.

So what follows is a list of some common FEELING FACTORS that parents might want to consider the next time a puzzling adolescent upset or outburst occurs.  

SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS. For most young people, puberty (the 1 ½ to 3 year process of growth into sexual maturity) begins around early adolescence, during late elementary school and middle school, when the journey to young womanhood and young manhood begins. Not only can this hormone--driven change cause them to feel out of control of their body, it can also bring about an increase in self-consciousness, inadequacy, vulnerability to embarrassment, and moodiness, all made worse if one is socially teased or makes painful criticisms that put oneself down. More discomfort and sensitivity about one’s changing body from puberty are all part of the adolescent age.  

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FRUSTRATION. With the adolescent desire for more room to grow comes a greater need for immediate gratification. The young person seems ruled by a ‘Tyranny of Now’ in which blockage of any freedom can be painful to endure. At a time when the urge to grow is more intense, it can be intensely difficult to be made to slow down or to wait for or to do without what one wants. Not only can delay and denial frustrate a young person, it can also contribute to more prickly irritability and hasty impulsivity.  Because urgency is an emotional imperative, more frustration is part of the adolescent age.

SADNESS. Adolescence begins with loss because the separation from childhood requires giving up and letting go much that was valued during one’s early years. Now the young person knows they can’t go home to that simpler sheltered time again, but must give up some beloved childish ways, interests, and even things, creating losses that can be sorely missed. Young people who are deeply suffering such grievous loss may be more prone to times of despondency, sorely conflicted about wanting and not wanting to grow up.  More sadness over the loss of childhood attachments is part of the adolescent age.

ANGER.  The desire to operate more independently and on one’s own terms causes the young person to be less tolerant of what parents say must and must not be done. In consequence, there is more resentment of parental rules and restraints: “Who gives you the right to make me more or stop me; you’re not the boss of the world!” Except, parents still dictate most terms on which the young person lives. More anger at the unfairness of adult authority is part of the adolescent age.

LONELINESS. Separating more from parents puts more pressure on finding and a family of friends to supplant companionship lost at home.  In this community of peers, however, the politics of relationships create ever shifting associations. Constant vigilance is required to remain secure in one’s social circle because unlike parents, whose caring is committed, peer relationships are conditional on conforming to belong. There are times for most young people when friendships are broken, when one feels outsider, no longer fitting in, left out, rejected, unpopular, disconnected and alone. More loneliness both at home and in the world of peers is part of the adolescent age. 

BOREDOM. Adolescents can have a conflicted relationship with freedom. When they feel entrapped in activities that have no positive meaning to them (like at school), they don’t have freedom enough; but when they feel empty of interest or purpose (like in vacation) they have more freedom than they know what to do with. On both counts, restless complaints about being “bored silly,” “bored out of my mind,” “bored to death” can result. Now doing something, anything, can feel better than having nothing to do, hence the increased vulnerability to joining equally bored peers in some impulsive escapade. More purposelessness and desperation from boredom is part of the adolescent age.        

FAILURE. Most adolescents grow up with some positive expectations for themselves from themselves and from their parents. Not meeting these personal or parental goals or ambitions or hopes as sometimes happens can cause disappointment from which feelings of failure can follow. “I really let everybody down, myself included!” Judging oneself by one’s peers and not keeping up with their growth or accomplishments can also disappoint. “I didn’t do as well as my friends.” More feelings of disappointment from actual or comparative failure are part of the adolescent age.

ANXIETY. Passing through the door of early adolescence, the young person enters an immeasurably larger field of play than childhood where daunting older experiences await and many social dangers abound. Growing up is a scary business, and most young people encounter frightening challenges and worry with scary possibilities along the way. This is why adolescence is often an act of courage. Times of feeling afraid, coping with threats, taking risks, and facing fears are all part of the journey. More anxiety at real and imagined dangers are part of the adolescent age.

STRESS. Growing through adolescence to young adulthood, life just gets more complicated as added demands create more responsibilities to manage, and more information and competencies to learn. For example, secondary school is more stressful than elementary school for this reason. The more independent one grows, the more of life there is attend to. Common signs of stress become more apparent: fatigue and negativity, emotional and physical discomfort, loss of traditional caring, inability to function with normal effectiveness. And if pronounced disorganization, distractibility, or habitual procrastination is part of the personal mix, pressure for coping with growing demands just increases. More stress from having more one must do is part of the adolescent age.     

SHYNESS. Leaving the shelter of the family circle to spend more time in the company of peers can feel challenging to do. In fact, socializing at this insecure age can feel daunting when reticent about speaking up, feeling at a loss for words, lacking social confidence, worrying about what others will think, avoiding eye contact, staying silent, keeping to oneself, wanting comany but deciding to sit alone. Now four fears from shyness can rule. They are the fear of attracting attention, the fear of being embarrassed, the fear of being rejected, and the fear of being speechless. Hence the parental advice: “There is nothing wrong in feeling shy, but choosing to act shy usually makes feeling shy much worse.” More shyness from increased social exposure is part of the adolescent age.    

There are so many emotional explosives set for adolescents, it is no wonder increased intensity and frequent outbursts occur during what is often a more stormy passage than was childhood. For this reason, I believe it becomes a priority for parents to help the young person learn emotional self-management skills when stronger feelings typically arise. As in most education that parents provide, what they are trying to instill has future implications.  How the adolescent learns to manage intense emotion now bears directly on how he manages this part of life later as an adult.

There are many teachable moments in adolescence when feelings become extreme, when feelings dictate thoughts or actions, and when emotional outbursts occur. For example, there are emotional ambushes when some event proves unexpectedly upsetting. For example, an unwelcome happening can be allowed to represent some symbolic truth, making the pain more extreme. “I wasn’t invited which just goes to show how no one ever really likes me!” This generalized conclusion makes the specific experience unhappier to endure. In this instance, after empathizing with their daughter, parents can encourage her to take a more objective look at the data. Doing so, her larger experience illustrates and affirms how she has made and kept other friends. In addition, parents can suggest that beating up on herself when she is down will not help her feel better. At such times, they can encourage treating herself well instead – to recover positive energy and motivation.  

Parents can help the adolescent learn to accept and honor emotions as Good Informants, as agents of an affective awareness system which identifies when something significant is happening in one’s world of experience that is worth attending to. However, they also need to help the teenager learn to suspect and distrust emotions as Bad Advisors, because when feelings are allowed to do one’s thinking, impulsive actions often intensify the hurt.

Thus, anger can advise: “Attack and strike back!” Fear can advise: “Avoid or run away!” “Depression can advise: “Withdraw and isolate!” Discouragement can advise: “Stop trying and give up!” Resentment can advise: “Hold on to grievance and don’t forgive!” Shyness can advise: “Don’t join or speak up!” In each case, following emotional advice can make painful feelings worse.

The parent’s job is to help the teenager learn to use emotional arousal to direct attention, identify a problem, and energize a response, but to consult considered judgment for creating a solution.  So the parent says, “I know that your feelings tell you to break up with your best friend after what he did today, and I want to listen to how what happened hurts.  But afterwards, let’s think about if there is not something you could say or do to help get this valued relationship back on track.”  

Finally, when an adolescent emotional outburst is directed at a parent, instead of immediately correcting the young person or defending yourself, or emotionally exploding back, try to remember that at the moment for your teenager “there is no thinking person home.”  Therefore, your immediate job is to create that “homecoming” by expressing concern for the teenager’s upset condition. “If you can lower your voice, I can better hear and understand which is what I want to do. You wouldn’t act this upset with me unless there was something really important at stake.  Please tell me what’s going on. I am here to listen when you are able to talk.”   

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.) More information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Gaining Parental Permission

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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