When your teen goes off the rails and feelings get hurt along the way (looking at you, mom and dad), the unglamorous and truthful thing to always remember is this: it’s not about you. Sound familiar? The reason why we keep hammering this point home is to help you channel your inner coach in these trying times and lulls of parenting. The next time your teen blurts out, “I hate you” or rages on in a mood that simply won’t bounce back, remember that what we see is just the tip of the iceberg. The remaining 90% below the surface is what we can become more curious about (read: it’s a skill).
Our kids’ emotional ups and downs should not surprise us by this point. Simply take a walk down memory lane of adolescence and you might recall the hormonal chaos of your middle school years. Or how about the acne and body fluctuations that had you staring at the mirror, wondering if you’d ever truly be liked and belong? Or the long laundry list of: academic pressures, extracurriculars, bullying, sports, drugs, sex, and the anxiety that comes from the social media photo you should’ve posted…yesterday? Not to mention, teen brains are still figuring out how to regulate complex emotions. This goes on well beyond their 20s.
You get the picture, but you’re still human. As in, feeling the loss of your angelic child (no more) is an adjustment, all while you face the fact that your own triggers and unresolved issues are coming up for air. Wherever the source lies, it might be time for a good hard look at what lies below the iceberg’s tip. Ready to jump in?
What to do when your teen hurts your feelings
Remember the oldie but goodie, “hurt people…hurt people”? Turns out, we can modify this one to read: hurt teens…hurt parents. The classic three-dreaded words, “I hate you” that every parent wants to dodge is way more common than you think. We talk at length about how to course-correct if you find yourself in this scenario or any variation of it, like the drama, tantrums, whining and disrespectful speech. But what about when you already know the golden rule (it’s not about you, it’s about their unexpressed angst, anger, insert whatever root emotion applies here) and still find yourself drowning in a sea of triggers, wishing you had a better way to deal?
It goes without saying, but sometimes it helps to revisit the basics: The “underlying need for all of us humans is the need to be heard, acknowledged, and validated in our emotions and experiences,” says clinical psychologist Liz Matheis, Ph.D.
Their meltdowns are valid, and so are your feelings. You want to support them, better yet model healthier ways of regulating those explosive emotions. While the emotional charge of seeing your child in distress is a hard pill to swallow, what can be even harder is tending to their needs when you have yet to explore and care for yours. While the path forward will look different for everyone, our role is to do the kind of self-reflection work we expect out of our kids. It’s a practice like everything else, but one that you can modify based on their age and the context of the situation (workable in everything from a bad mood to a full on meltdown).
Step 1: Pause and ask yourself, “what’s being triggered for you as a parent?”
Emotions are running hot on all sides. Find a moment to calm yourself down. Engaging from a fight or flight response will definitely make things worse, so focus on what’s in your control first. A healthy pause followed by some reflections can move you into greater clarity. Some prompts to get you started:
- Are you feeling anxious?
- Are you projecting your own unrealized goals and dreams on them?
- Are you worried that your parents wouldn’t approve of your child’s behavior?
- Do you fear what other parents might think or say about their behavior?
Step 2: Calmly approach your teenager with an inviting question
The key is calm from beginning to end. How you engage with them in tone of voice, volume, facial expressions, body language and how fast you speak is as important as what you say. While there may be lingering feelings of hurt and desire to ‘get back at them’ for how they treated you (hey, no judgment!), the calm is just as much for them as it is for you. Channel that inner zen and reframe the impulse to command or control into something more useful and constructive. Instead of, “go to your room!” try “how can I help you right now?”
Step 3: Validate your kid and model healthy behavior
Avoid blaming or shaming here. The goal is to make them feel safe. Safe enough to express what’s really stirring beneath the rage. Check your own triggers at the door, and give them the floor. Practice these validating statements to have in your back pocket when you need them most. Our favorites, include:
- I’m sorry you’re having a hard time
- This is frustrating
- Can I sit here with you?
- Is there something we can do together to make this better?
Step 4: Build resilience beyond the meltdown
When emotions have cooled down, we can continue the work of building up resilience. Practice tempering the inner critic that wants to stay in its comfort zone and default habits. Train your mind to normalize the tough times. Change the conversion with yourself that ‘their meltdown is your failure.’ It’s not. These affirmations are a great start:
- It’s okay if my kid is having a difficult time
- Meltdowns are okay.
- I’m not a failure.
- I’m not a bad parent.
- My child isn’t intentionally giving me a hard time.
It’s not about hitting a home run every time. Small steps create big changes over time for you and your kids. Show some self-compassion, take plenty of deep breaths and imperfectly welcome what lies just beneath the rage.