Teen Girls and the Practice of Non-Reactivity

Tips for keeping your cool with your teenager.

Posted Jul 31, 2012

Even if you’re the calmest person and parent on earth, there’s a good chance you’ve lost your cool with your teen daughter. With her unpredictable moods and a proclivity to regard you as the gum she just stepped in, you may feel challenged on a daily basis.

Emotional reactivity refers to the way we humans react as a result of experiencing emotions. Some people are referred to as highly emotionally reactive because they tend to accelerate from 0 to 60 quickly, causing problems in relationships.

When parents of teen girls are highly emotionally reactive, I often see much more conflict in the relationship OR a teen girl that has significantly withdrawn from the relationship. Whether the parent accelerates quickly into fear, anger, hurt, or jealousy, emotional reactivity toward teen girls produces poor outcomes.

Instead of thinking, “Wow! My parent really cares” teen girls are more likely to think, “You are freakin’ crazy and I want nothing to do with you!”

Parents who are more laid back by nature or who have worked on themselves through practices such as meditation, yoga, or therapy learn to work with themselves in ways that promote lower emotional reactivity.

Such people experience emotions richly but cultivate an ability to stay calm, composed, and effective in the face of them. They experience a pleasant shift in power, feeling more as though they are having their emotions than their emotions are “having” them. They tend to be more skillful, conscientious and compassionate in their interactions. As a result, their relationships prosper.

Raising teen girls can be extremely emotionally challenging for parents. Even moments parents expect to be satisfying can go to hell in a handbag at the drop of a teen girl’s mood. Such episodes catch parents off guard and trigger emotions that burst forth messily, creating pain for everyone.

In provocative moments, parents benefit from practicing emotional non-reactivity. Depending on your temperament and the temperament of your teen, you might need to do quite a lot of this.

Different parents have different triggers and it helps to know what your triggers for emotional reactivity are. Personally, I get triggered most easily when I am tired and experience my teen girls as rude or inconsiderate.

Of course, rationally I know their behavior is developmentally appropriate and that all I need to do is respond to it without taking it personally. On a good day, I can do this. In a moment of exhaustion or irritability, I may not.

If you would like to become more emotionally Non Reactive with your teen, here are some tips to explore. Be patient as you experiment because changing your patterns is always harder in the beginning. Over time, emotional non reactivity will be your new normal.

  1. PAUSE. Make a habit of pausing every time you feel emotionally triggered. Instead of focusing on your daughter, notice the emotions you are experiencing. Simply notice.

  2. RELAX. When you have an intense emotional reaction, I promise you, it happens in your body. You may feel punched, pierced, tumbled, shocked, or hit by a bus. Seizing up is not helpful because a tense body correlates with a tense emotional state. Intentionally relax your body.

  3. BREATHE. Honest to goodness, just do it. Even better, breathe in for 6 seconds and out for 6 seconds. Your brain will start functioning better and the time you are taking to breathe is slowing down your emotional acceleration, which means you are already circumventing emotional reactivity.

  4. VISUALIZE. You know how water moves over a river rock? Visualize your emotional experience moving over you like water over a rock. Do this while continuing to pause and breathe.

  5. DECIDE. Can you let this go right now? Much of what teen girls do or say to trigger us doesn’t need to be addressed in the moment and there can be HUGE benefits to waiting. When you are less emotionally affected, you can “touch base” and “give feedback” to her about whatever triggered you. You will be a much more effective communicator if you are emotionally even, focusing on the issue at hand instead of launching from a place of strong emotion.

  6. BOUNCE BACK. Resilience means the ability to bounce back. If we want our teen daughters to learn resilience, we need to model it by either maintaining well being or reclaiming it as soon as possible. Switch gears and take a walk, get a drink of water, pet the dog, or literally shake the stress out of your body. There is no benefit to holding on to negative emotions.

At the end of the day, it is developmentally appropriate for teen girls to provoke parents. It’s their job to challenge us and separate from us. We can’t control many of the ways in which they do this but we can control our response.

Fortunately, practicing emotional non-reactivity becomes easier the more that we do it. It’s also easier when we feel fairly good in our own lives. Keep in mind you are more vulnerable to emotional reactivity when you are tired, overwhelmed, rushed, over-worked, sick or hormonal.

The better you take care of yourself and the healthier your lifestyle, the more energy you will have to be a river rock of emotional stability, no matter what class the river.

SUGGESTION: If you want to learn more about reducing emotional reactivity, see if there is an MBSR class in your area. MBSR stands for Meditation Based Stress Reduction and I’ve seen the most stressed out people I know change their lives through MBSR!


For more tips, visit my blog at www.luciephd.com/blog

Share your experiences in the comments below.