Parenting through the emotions of adolescents can be tough work. I like to think of it as attending a bad musical performance. The nervous singer belts out flat melodies. Guitars are in the wrong key. The piano hits those shrill notes that scrape your eardrums. That’s called musical dissonance or disharmony, and it’s no fun to listen to! The same thing can happen in the mental health of your teen when they consistently allow unreliable emotions to lead the “band.” They end up with a chaotic and harmful soundtrack in their heads.
KEEPING EMOTIONS IN THEIR LANE
Emotions are a wonderful thing, and while there’s always a place for them at the dinner party, they aren’t meant to sit at the head of the table. Buying into negative emotions and allowing them to steer our thoughts can open the door to increased depression and anxiety. It’s a slippery slope and one we see with our teens all the time.
Here’s how it often works: let’s say your teen just failed a test or had a friend betray them. Negative emotions of fear, distress, or shame can quickly rise up and become self-defining. Failing turns into being a failure. Rejection turns into being a reject. While this immediate reaction is normal, we don’t want our kids to stay there forever, and that means letting healthy thoughts take the lead. It also means parenting with a growth mindset.
Okay, I failed that test, but that does not make me a failure.
This hurt from a friend is real, but it says more about their character than mine.
I feel loss/fear/shame right now, but I know it is circumstantial and not about me as a whole person, and it will pass.
There’s a reason the word ‘motion’ is in emotion. Our emotions can send us on rollercoaster rides that toss us around to the point of nausea! When we can pull back and look at our feelings objectively, we can turn the tide and let our thoughts do some healthy, stabilizing navigation. I often ask teen clients if they are inviting their negative emotions in for a full day of Netflix and crying, or if they are talking to those negative emotions and infusing their minds with some positive truths. If they are choosing the first option, they’re in for a long, tough day!
Emotional reasoning can be summed up as follows: If I feel this way, it must be true. If our teens feel stupid and boring, then it must be true that they are stupid and boring, right? No! Of course, we know this isn’t the case, but how do we help them counter these emotionally driven thoughts?
STEPS TO TAKE
- Acknowledge an Emotion Without Placing a Value on it.
Sometimes we make the mistake of putting emotions into good and bad categories. Anger is bad. Happiness is good. But what if anger spurs us toward healthy change? And what if happiness is based on a fleeting, toxic experience? We need to resist stamping a value on our emotions instead, simply recognize what we are experiencing, then ask what we can learn from the situation.
2. Challenge the Emotion
Here’s where we can use therapeutic techniques to diffuse emotions that lead to cognitive distortions. Are we using black-and-white reasoning? Teens often see themselves as ‘everything’ or ‘nothing’, and little middle ground exists in their filtering. This is why they fall prey to believing the façade of social media even though they know their own social media isn’t reflective of the truth. The natural fallout is feelings of being lesser than and not enough.
3. Don’t Create Labels
Emotions can blind us from seeing the balance of who we truly are. Every parent knows this one! We can sit with a hurting child and give them a list of their positive qualities and what do we get in return? You have to say that because you’re my mom/dad. That is a perfect example of our teens fully believing the negative emotions and disqualifying the cognitive truth of their positives.
4. Stop Setting Unrealistic Standards
Another strategy is to challenge critical words like ‘should’ and ‘must.’ These set up unrealistic standards, and we are bound to fall short, which only serves to reinforce negative emotions. This goes hand-in-hand with overgeneralizing where we can take one event and frame it incorrectly as a whole. I always fail; No one ever chooses me; I’ll never be happy. Countering the attached negative emotion allows for healthier thought patterns. Patterns that, in turn, lead to brighter and healthier emotions. When we fail to challenge negative emotions, we can enter a vicious self-fulfilling cycle that serves to grow self-doubt, anxiety, and depression.
5. Take a Break
Never underestimate the power of taking a break from negative emotions. When our teens dip into an unhealthy feeling cycle, we want to encourage them to interrupt it. Rather than inviting their fear, anxiety, and sadness in for the day, encourage your teen to take a break. This can mean taking a walk, going for a bike ride, seeing a funny movie, or healthily connecting with others. Delivering this message should be done with care and respect.
DON’T Say: No wonder you’re depressed, you stay in that room all day with your face in a screen. Why don’t you go outside?!
DO Say: I can understand that you’re having a rough week. How about stepping away and taking a break for a bit?
The DON’T response invalidates their emotions, which ironically validates their negative labeling. The DO response acknowledges their feelings without shame and encourages them toward self-empowerment and emotional management. Ultimately they must make these choices on their own, and we want to be a part of opening healthy doors, not trying to shove them through those doors.
WHAT DOES GOD SAY?
God gave us the gift of emotions. They serve as an excellent roadmap for our lives if we listen to them accurately and couch them in God’s truth. They can significantly mislead us if we fail to check them against Biblical wisdom.
|GOD SAYS…||BIBLE VERSES|
|Confused||I’ll direct your steps.||Proverbs 3:5-6|
|Tired||I’ll give you rest.||Matthew 11:28-30|
|Unloved||I love you.||John 3:16|
|Shame||I forgive you.||Romans 8:1|
|Like Giving Up||It will be worth it.||Romans 8:28|
|Not Smart Enough|
I will give you wisdom.
|1 Corinthians 1:30|
|Not Able||I am able.||2 Corinthians 9:8|
|Afraid||I have not given you fear.||2 Timothy 1:7|
|Alone/Abandoned||I will never leave you.||Hebrews 13:5|
Above all, our teens need to know that the healthy care of emotions can often involve others’ help. Take the time to talk with your teens about what a balanced emotional life should look like. We can take for granted that they understand these concepts, but it is not unusual to discover that they are actually carrying around lies and misinformation. If you find gaps in their understanding and want some support, reach out for help. Directing them to the truth in the form of scripture, mentors, and counselors is never a lost investment and can help them build a healthy emotional and thought life.
Written By: Alison Patton
Counselor, MA, LPCC, NCC