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Helping Your Adolescent Grow Through a Hard Emotional Time

Beyond giving empathy and support, parents can encourage affirmative actions.

Key points

  • There are normal occasions of suffering during everyone's growing up.
  • Occasionally an adolescent can become emotionally stuck in unhappiness and cannot move beyond it.
  • In addition to securing outside help, parents can encourage affirmative actions that strengthen well-being.
 Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

I believe no adolescent makes it through the 10-to-12-year coming-of-age passage without encountering increased exposures to the unwanted and the unexpected, encountering unhappiness each way. Adolescence is a bruising process on this account.

While it may be possible to have what, looking back, seems like an "ideal" childhood, there is no such luck with adolescence. Some times of suffering beset everyone during the normal course of their growing up.

Sources of Unhappiness

I believe some common sources of unhappiness are rooted in four sequential stages of adolescent growth.

  1. The rejection of childhood, around the late elementary years, when a young person no longer wants to be defined and treated as just a child anymore. Now this loss of old definition and functioning can beget unhappy feelings of grief and insecurity: “I miss the simpler, easier way life used to be.”
  2. Forming a family of friends, around the middle-school years, when a young person struggles with puberty and peers. Now this need for self and social acceptance can beget unhappy feelings of self-criticism and pressures of fitting in: “It’s hard not having friends, but it’s hard having them too.”
  3. Experimenting with acting older, around the high-school years, when a young person feels drawn to advanced risk-taking. Now this need for more worldly experience can beget unhappy feelings of fear and worry required for becoming more adult: “To grow up, I have to start acting that way.”
  4. Emancipation from parental rule, around the college-age years, when a young person assumes responsibility for self-governance. Now this need for autonomy can beget unhappy feelings of stress and failure to assume self-management authority: “Independence is harder than I expected.”

In response to these changing developmental realities, young people need to honor experiences of hurt: to accept them, bear them, learn from them, absolve what they can, adjust to what they cannot, and finally become able to let go and move on.

There are important life lessons to be taught, and parents can be helpful in this hard instruction: "We can’t experience the suffering for you, but we can listen to what it’s like, we can provide you caring company, and we can encourage acting in ways that promote you feeling better.”

Varieties of Unhappiness

Adolescent unhappiness comes in so many forms. For a sample, during the adolescent passage, it’s normal for young people to emotionally know some of the following discomforts: embarrassment, confusion, frustration, boredom, doubt, helplessness, apathy, anger, resentment, jealousy, envy, threat, fear, insecurity, hurt, injury, disorganization, disappointment, loneliness, rejection, failure, hopelessness, shame, isolation, anxiety, despondency, and grief.

While parents may wish to spare their daughter or son such hard emotional times, these are all part of the adversity that living can sometimes bring.

Becoming Emotionally Stuck

Although none of these states are necessarily lasting and disabling, they are all painful at the time. However, sometimes a young person can get hung up on an unhappy emotional response, be overwhelmed by the suffering, have a hard time letting it go, and may see no escape: “The worse I feel, the worse I feel!”

When adolescents become emotionally stuck,

  • They have often lost perspective (unhappiness is mostly what they see);
  • They have often lost initiative (painful repetition is mostly how they act); and
  • They have often lost alternatives (suffering is mostly what they know to do).

On all three counts, the troubled young person can become emotionally entrapped.

Seeking Help

When one seeks professional help to alleviate the suffering, it’s common to have some psychoactive medication prescribed—to reduce anxiety or lift depression, for example. If so, it’s well to remember that medication by itself provides no education, only a measure of relief. What also needs attention is recovery—helping the troubled young person learn to live differently within herself or himself.

When it comes to recovery, perspective needs broadening (“I can treat unhappiness as part of me, but not all of me”), initiative needs practicing (“I can take charge of how I act”), and alternatives need to be found (“I can do some things that make me happier").

Sometimes, the young person arrives at an emotional crossroad where they can either choose to deny the pain, suppress it, and soldier on burdened with past unhappiness, or they can get help practicing an enormously important life skill: processing personal pain. Here is where talk therapy may often help. It can allow the young person to express their suffering, create understanding, and gain emotional acceptance that enables freely moving on: "I can't change what I wish hadn't happened; but at least I've put my unhappiness into words, got a good listen, and know myself better than before."

During times of suffering, it can feel easier to shut up and shut down, or even act out the emotional pain, than to speak up and allow verbal communication to make hard experiences easier to bear.

Parental Help

When their adolescent is growing through a hard emotional time, It's easy for parents to fixate on the problem and ignore recovery. However, I believe they can often be most helpful: supporting affirmative actions that can cause the young person to feel better. Consider what a few such restorative behaviors might be:

  • Working—find a task worth doing.
  • Exercising—physically use your body.
  • Helping—provide assistance to others.
  • Humor—laugh at what is funny.
  • Appreciating—be grateful for what is going right.
  • Creating—invent or express something new.
  • Imagining—make up a positive possibility.
  • Playing—participate in a game or sport.
  • Fixing—put something broken back in order.
  • Practicing—repeat doing something to do it better.
  • Joining—become part of a social group.
  • Learning—discover what you’re curious to know.
  • Conditioning—strengthen your endurance.
  • Relaxing—invest in what rests, renews, and restores.
  • Loving—give of your caring to someone or something.
  • Teaching—share with others what you know.
  • Planning—set some goals you want to pursue.

Such affirmative acts of self-engagement can give meaning, purpose, and pleasure at a time when some personal suffering is having its painful say: “I still like playing my sport.” “Hanging with friends is fun.” “Working out feels good.” “Listening to music brings me peace.” Now good times can uplift experience.

With a suffering adolescent, parents have two jobs: to honor the pain with empathy (perhaps getting outside help), and to nurture recovery by encouraging affirmative actions that can make life feel rewarding. "I don't have to feel unhappy all the time."

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