Managing Your Teen’s Emotional Reactivity

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One of the most common dynamics I encounter with families is this: when the teen starts to spiral into emotional reactivity, the parents go down with the ship! It often feels like parents don’t have a choice–it’s too difficult to watch their child in distress and the pressure is on to either put out the fire or join their daughter in the upset. Yet there are other, more effective approaches that invite you and your daughter back into the calm.

Approach #1: Validation

When your daughter expresses painful emotions, the temptation might be to talk logic to her or point out the fallacies in her thinking. Like clockwork, the emotion rises rather than falls! What your daughter is seeking in those moments is validation. This doesn’t mean you always have to agree with her, rather your job is to let her know she is safe to express herself to you. Some go-to validating statements include:

“That sounds really tough.”

“I’m sorry you’re hurting right now.”

“I can understand why you feel that way.”

“How upsetting.”

“What a bummer.”

When parents can shift from “fixing it” to allowing the emotion, it serves as a diffuser. Your child no longer feels the need to defend her perspectives and you have created an environment in your home that can contain difficult emotions.

Approach #2: Check your own Anxiety

The need to “fix it” with your child stems from the best intentions. Loving parents simply don’t like seeing their kids in uncomfortable moments. However, stepping in and rescuing your daughter from these kinds of life experiences keeps her from learning how to cope with difficult situations.  Allowing her to feel pain at times and learn how to deal with her anxieties sends her the message that she is capable.

I’ve asked many parents to check their own anxiety, meaning to look at what compels you to intervene on your daughter’s behalf. Are you feeling anxious over her circumstance? Do you want to control the outcome? If you step in, is it in large part to alleviate your own anxiety? If you are answering with a resounding yes to these questions, that could be a cue to step back and allow the natural consequences to run their course. As long as the consequences don’t have severe repercussions or impact her safety, they could be invaluable life teachers.

If your cue is to step back, the next step is to engage in activities that de-intensify your anxiety. Typical anxiety diffusers include:

Calling a loved one

Exercising

Taking a bath

Listening to music

Spending time with your pet

Writing in your journal

Meditating/praying

Breathe deeply

Take care of yourself and focus on controlling your own anxiety. In that process, you will be more likely to let go of the need to control what’s happening in your daughter’s life.

Approach #3: Take a Break 

One of the most effective coping tools in managing anxiety is taking a break. Research indicates that it takes at least twenty minutes for an adolescent to calm down from a heightened emotion. This is one of the most simple things to do, but simple doesn’t always mean easy. The need to problem solve or defend your position can feel overpowering during tense moments. It is hard to walk away when you feel you have the answer. Yet until your daughter enters that calm phase (at least twenty minutes from now), she will be unlikely to hear anything helpful you have to say. It is like running on a hamster wheel–you’re hard work gets you nowhere.

Kindly and calmly disengage when you see that your daughter or you are entering into an escalating emotional climate. Examples of disengaging with love include:

“It seems like we’re too upset to talk about this. Let’s take a break and come back to it.”

“When you’re ready to talk about this calmly, I’m here for you.”

“I want to have a productive conversation with you, but I need to calm down before I’m able to do that.”

Approach #4: Invite Accountability

The three statements above reflect not only taking a break, but the need to come back to the conversation. Inviting your daughter to confront her challenge sends the message that you believe she is able to manage something difficult. It influences her to take accountability rather than avoid. As a family, you might want to set up daily or weekly “check-ins.”  These brief (ten to fifteen minutes) conversations can focus on challenges each individual is facing and what their plan of action is. Having a consistent time to converse allows your family to discuss difficult topics outside the heat of the moment.

When you notice that your daughter has diffused her emotion or navigated a challenging situation successfully, give her praise. It’s important to acknowledge what is going right at home. Focusing on your daughters strengths will encourage her to utilize those positive skills in the future.

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