It’s Monday night, and Kathleen returns home after a long day at work; she opens the door and as soon as she enters she hears the voice of her 15-year old daughter, Natalie, “Can I spend the night at my boyfriend’s house?” Caught by surprise, Kathleen pauses, and then says, “You were there all weekend. It’s Monday, and it’s a school week–” Kathleen is unable to finish the sentence before Natalie raises her voice in a threat: “If you don’t let me go to Chad’s, I’m gonna be depressed, and then I’m gonna cut!” Kathleen responds by matching Natalie’s tone and volume and screams, “You know you can’t go to Chad’s tonight, why do you do this to me?” Natalie starts screaming and runs upstairs to her bedroom. Next, Kathleen begins to cry; she does not know whether she should go upstairs or not. She starts yelling while running upstairs; she proceeds to knock on the door multiple times, asking Natalie to open it. She receives no response from her daughter.
Parenting a teen is a difficult task; parenting a teen struggling with emotion dysregulation problems is an entirely different story. When Kathleen came back home and encountered the situation described above with her beloved 15-year old daughter, she certainly did the best she could to handle that situation at that particular moment: She said no, she tried to explain why, and then she became louder and louder as she strove to be heard.
Arguments like his happen more often than not in Kathleen’s household; any short conversation or denial of a request escalates into a battle of the wills. Arguments rage that are full of threats, doors slamming, and there is an abundance of tears. While Kathleen is doing her best, the relationship with Natalie keeps getting worse. Kathleen feels hopeless about the situation, and Natalie continues to become an island unto herself.
Dealing with a teen with emotion dysregulation means that at any point throughout the day, his or her emotional switch will turn on. Sometimes a parent can foresee when the emotional switch will turn on, and other times it happens quickly; like a fire alarm, it goes off so suddenly that parents are caught off guard and end up thoroughly confused about what just happened. Naturally, parents try to dampen the fire using every thing they imagine will help their teen to calm down.
Because the teen’s emotional switch can be turned on so abruptly and so often it is really hard for parents to pause and evaluate what’s really going on. Parents are just too busy attempting to calm these emotional flare ups, and of course, that’s totally understandable. What are you supposed to do when your teen is totally out of control?
Unfortunately, we cannot make any situation better unless we look at it more closely and identify in detail what is happening. In the next paragraphs I’m going to invite you to “play detective” and “zoom in” to those difficult situations with your teen using a top-notch magnifying glass.
Let’s play detective
For this exercise, think about a difficult situation you may have had with your teen in the past week or month; try to think of one of those moments in which you found yourself struggling with your teen’s behavior. Do the best you can to go back to that particular encounter and bring it into your mind as vividly as possible. Now that you have a specific situation to “zoom in” to, do the best you can to answer the questions in the chart below:
For example when Kathleen completed this exercise, her chart looked like this:
|What was the activating situation (triggering event)?
|What did you go through internally (e.g., thoughts, feelings, images, physical sensations)?
|How did you respond to the situation?
|Natalie asking to spent the night at her boyfriend’s house||“Why does she need to ask me this today?
Doesn’t she know it’s not okay?
I have told her many times she cannot sleep at Chad’s home on the weekdays. What’s wrong with her?
Why does she try to control the situation?”
Feeling frustrated, very frustrated
|Explain why she cannot go
Scream at her
Now, after “zooming in” to the specifics of this problematic situation, let’s take an even closer look with this next exercise. Here we investigate the same situation and answer two more questions: (1) What happens to your teen’s behavior in the moment? and (2) What happens to you in that moment?
If Kathleen’s were answering these new questions, her answers would look like this:
What happens to your teen’s behavior in the moment?
|What happens to you in that moment?
|Natalie runs to her bedroom, she screams back at me & threatens me with cutting her wrist.
|I feel exhausted- crying, feeling helpless at not knowing what to do next.|
Now after looking microscopically at one of these difficult situations that you and your teen go through, can you notice that in that particular moment, you and your teen are both managing your own emotions and thoughts?? You have to deal with your own private noise when your teen acts out at the beginning of the event, and simultaneously, your teen must deal with his own private noise when you respond the way you respond. It appears that your teen’s behavior is a trigger for you and then how you respond becomes a trigger for your teen. In that particular moment of struggle, it is really as though you and your teen are dancing together, but rather than dancing together in a synchronized manner, you are stepping on each other’s feet. Parenting is hard, but parenting a teen with emotion dysregulation problems is much, much harder.
On the other hand, sometimes I encounter parents that tell me “Patricia, it works! When I give it back to my kid by screaming louder, she stops.” Do you relate to that comment? If you find yourself having a similar response in regards to yelling back at your kid, I can tell you right away that you’re absolutely right. At first glance, giving it back to your kid in equal measure may seem like it works, but if you look closer, it does nothing to stop the problematic behavior in the long run. After these dramatic enactments reoccur a number of times, ask yourself whether this type of response is really helping the two of you to get closer or more disconnected.
I’m sure when you became a parent you never thought you would be going through moments like this; most people do not become a parent to deal with struggles like this. Most of the parents I work with say, “Patricia, I lost my kid; I don’t know what happened to the kid I raised?” I cannot stress enough how hard the struggle is when you are a parent to a teem with intense emotional reactions. It is natural that you may give up at times. It is natural to try to calm the storms by giving in to every request your teen has or by getting as loud as possible so he will stop his behavior. But hang in there.
Maybe in the next posts there will be something different for you to do, as well as for your teen and your family. For now, the most important task is to notice the dance between you and your teen during these outbursts: Look at your teen’s behavior and your own behavior and how both of you are simply attempting to manage your own emotions. You are both doing the best you can.