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Parenting Adolescents and the Management of Emotion

The function of feelings between parents and teenagers

Read a lot of child-raising literature, and the process of parenting sounds pretty rational — a matter of thoughtfully developing understanding and figuring out choices to help a son or daughter grow.

However, there is an irrational side that contributes to parenting as well, including that aspect of our selves that is emotional. Parents make decisions not only based on what they think, but on how they feel. Declares the parent: “I feel really hurt from being lied to, and until we’ve talked about that I’m not willing to discuss any weekend plans!” Both rational and irrational sides of adult functioning have much to contribute. A few notions about the contribution of emotion to parenting are under consideration here.

What purpose might emotion serve? Like other basic sense systems with which people are born, I believe that emotion provides a way of knowing about oneself, other people, and the world. It is essential to learning and to survival. Just as sight provides visual sensitivity, touch provides tactile sensitivity, and hearing provides auditory sensitivity, emotion provides affective sensitivity. Consider emotion as an affective awareness system that serves three powerful functions: It sensitizes us to what is going on with ourselves. It allows us to empathize with what is going on with others. And it can motivate us to action when need arises.

Start with how emotions can SENSITIZE us to ourselves. Our capacity for emotion continually monitors our life experience to direct attention to what is happening inside and about us that personally means something and matters. All feelings are informative, but each responds to a different aspect of our experience. For example, grief often registers loss, fear warns of danger, anger identifies violation, jealousy suspects threat, frustration responds to blockage, attraction shows interest, joy celebrates fulfillment, love affirms attachment, and hope anticipates positive possibilities. Emotion assesses our experience for what is going on that feels worthy of attention.

Emotions can clarify what is really going on. For example, a parent who has been puzzled by her growing resentment toward her middle school son for wanting to be with his friends all the time reflects on her feelings and discovers that what is really at issue is her sense of loneliness from loss. She misses the close companionship they shared, that’s the matter. So she tells her son: “I’m not really mad; just sad.” Then she explains how she is missing the childhood period of their relationship that has come to end, and how she is ready for the different way of being together that comes next.

To appreciate the power of this self-awareness system, consider when a parent’s access to personal emotion is severely limited. This is the parent who will honestly say they don’t know what or how they feel, at least at the moment, or declare they are not feeling anything in particular. They can’t locate and identify what is emotionally going on within them. So at the end of the day, the teenager greets her dad and says: “You look really angry. Are you okay?” To which he honestly, but ignorantly replies: “I’m not angry. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Just leave me alone and go and get your homework done!” He thinks something is the matter with her for asking when in fact he is missing what is the matter within him — how he is cut off from his emotions. A parent who is emotionally out of touch can unconsciously communicate feelings about which he or she is not aware.

Emotion can help people EMPATHIZE with the feelings of others. It can serve as an agent of intimacy — connecting with someone in a deeper way. Expressed as concern, it can defuse a lot of normal encounters between parent and teenager. For example, instead of immediately correcting a major rule violation, the parent first wants to know about his daughter’s state of well-being since getting into trouble might be a sign that she is also emotionally troubled. So he asks: “Before we talk about the incident and what happens next, I need to know if anything is the matter, if you are feeling all right? And now what could have been an antagonistic encounter turns into opportunity for meaningful communication as parental concern, not the application of consequences, becomes the first topic of conversation. Empathy can convey caring. A parent who lacks empathy can come across as distant and cold, incapable of giving emotional support when the adolescent needs it.

Emotions can MOTIVATE people. It can arouse the person to do something in response to something that matters. For example, when the teenager uses words that are deliberately mean or hurtful to the parent, the parent feels wounded and right away calls the young person on it by making an expressive response (“what you just said really hurts”), a protective response (“it is not OK to use that kind of language with me”), and a corrective response (“there will be consequences if you ever speak to me that way again.”) Or a serious incident that may have just happened to their adolescent (a loss, failure, rejection, betrayal, injury, or disappointment) can seem to be ignored when a parent is not capable of the immediate emotional response that is needed. Emotion energizes action. A parent who lacks full capacity to feel can be slow to notice or react to something important.

Sometimes parents will say their adolescent is “too emotional,” but that usually means too emotional for their comfort, not for hers. Adolescence is a journey through a lot of emotional upheaval because every major growth change creates some new source of insecurity and intensity. Just think about all the uncertainty, self-criticism, self-consciousness, and sense of being out of control of one’s body that accompanies the sexual transformation of puberty — the 1 ½ to 3 year hormonal change that alters one’s shape and chemistry, ending in the onset of sexual maturity and beginning the challenge of how to act more manly or womanly.

Not only do adolescents have developmental cause to be more emotional than children, but parenting usually becomes more emotional in response to unpredictable adolescent change. For example, they feel caught in a squeeze. As adolescent exposure to worldly dangers and adult sense of responsibility both go up, capacity for protective parental control goes down to powerful emotional effect: parenting a teenager can often feel scarier than parenting a child.

Parents can teach the adolescent about managing painful feelings by explaining how they have learned to manage their own. For example, they might suggest a three choice model for dealing with unhappiness that the adult uses for herself. “Sometimes talking to someone about a bad feeling can make it feel better.” “Sometimes reframing my thinking can make a bad feeling better.” “Sometimes doing something pleasurable can make a bad feeling better.”

Thus when beset by unhappy feelings, in addition to talking them out with a supportive friend, the parent can describe how she uses thoughts or actions to help get out of the painful state. For example, she tells about the time she reframed her thinking, reconsidering a failed try as an admirable effort to do something hard. By doing so she went from feeling disappointed to feeling proud. Or one time by taking action and doing something fun, she went from wallowing in feeling down to feeling up.

Now comes the tricky part both for parents and for adolescents, a part where parents have a leadership role to play. Emotions, particularly of the unhappy kind, can create a special jeopardy for teenagers. They can highjack thinking. When the parent or adolescent allows unhappy feelings to “think” for him or her, what “feels” best to do to make things better is often exactly what will make things worse. The emotional state is being allowed to determine the cognitive choice. So, the parent’s explosion of temper over the adolescent’s risky choice discourages open communication about the serious situation that has been created.

Consider a few other examples of how emotions can advocate for the worst. Depression can counsel “do nothing,” instead of getting active on one’s own behalf to make things better. Discouragement can counsel “focus on the negative,” instead of looking for the positive to make things better. Anger can counsel “retaliation,” instead of finding a constructive way to address the wrong to make things better. Fear can counsel “run away,” instead of standing and facing the threat to make things better. Helplessness can counsel “give up,” instead of maintain effort to make things better. Loneliness can counsel “isolate,” instead of reaching out to make things better. Shyness can counsel “be silent,” instead of speaking up to make things better. Shame can counsel “be secret,” instead of openly communicating to make things better. Emotions tend to rule by self-interest. Left to their own devices, they will encourage thoughts and acts that support continuation of themselves.

So to manage emotions, this is one approach you can suggest to your adolescent. “Use emotion to sense what is going on in your world of experience that matters, but use your judgment, not your emotions, to decide what to believe and how to act. Identify your feelings, pay attention to what they are responding to, honor them, calm them, and then use your thinking to decide what is best to do. Treat emotions as very good informants, but be mindful that they can be very bad advisors.”

For more about adolescence and emotion, see my book, “Stop the Screaming.” For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) information at:

I welcome reader questions and suggested topics for future blogs.

Next week’s entry: Why an Adolescent Only Child can be hard on themselves