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For Parents of Teens: dealing with your teen’s outbursts

If you are a parent to a teen that has intense emotional outbursts, you may have experienced your own emotional outburst because of the way your teen is behaving. Most of the parents I have worked with in clinical practice have come into the therapy room exhausted, frustrated, and hopeless because of their teen’s behavior.  What it is often not discussed or talked about is the emotional rollercoaster that a parent may go through with their teen. If your teen has a tendency to have their emotions spin out of control, it is very likely that you are being affected.

Below is a situation that will highlight an emotional rollercoaster that a parent may experience:

Barbara is a 52-year old mother who works from home. Her daughter Jamie, a 16-year old female, tends to have intense emotions. When Jamie is in a good mood, she is a pleasure to be around. However, the “good moods” are becoming rare. Most days, Jamie will lash out and tell her mother that she is the worst mother ever. Barbara will begin to cry and think to herself, “Am I really this horrible of a mother?” Barbara told Jamie to vacuum the house before she left for school. Jamie began to curse at her. Barbara is left feeling sad and hopeless that her daughter is so angry. Furthermore, Barbara feels like she is responsible and will often spend most the day thinking if she should just give up on her daughter. Barbara is also feeling overwhelmed and not supported by her husband who is frequently traveling for work. When Jamie rolls her eyes or talks back to her mom, Barbara will often lash out and say, “JUST GET OUT OF MY HOUSE.” After things cool down, Barbara will feel guilt and shame for not being a good mom.

In this scenario, Barbara has become part of the vicious cycle for emotion dysregulation. Barbara is told that she is the worst mother ever. She then experiences sadness and hopelessness about the situation. Next, she feels unsupported by her husband. Just like the explosion of a volcano, Barbara eventually can’t regulate herself anymore and lashes out, which later comes with guilt and shame.

Barbara is an example of what it could be like for a parent to have a teen with intense emotions and outbursts. You might be asking yourself, what can I do as a parent? Harvey & Penzo (2009) pointed out that a parent needs to be aware of risk factors for their teens: lack of sleep, not feeling well, changes or transitions, tension in the house, school stressors or pressure, not eating well or exercising, or not taking medications, etc. All of these factors can set your teen up to be more vulnerable to have intense emotional experiences. A parent can really only encourage and remind their teen how important these things really are.  However, a parent could also:

  1. Try to purchase as much healthy/nutritious food for the home. Teens can and will do what they want, however, having less access to unhealthy foods could help.
  1. Try your best not to nag or remind your teen multiple times about reducing their risk factors. Rather, you could say you found interesting research that says not getting enough sleep can really impact our mood and ask them their opinions about that. If anything, you are at least planting the seed for them.

Although it may feel like a challenge to eliminate these risk factors completely, a parent that is able to be aware and identify their teen’s risk factors are ahead of the game. Identifying these risk factors can help you prepare for their triggers (their reaction to a situation). For instance, Barbara knows that when Jamie does not sleep at least 8 hours, she wakes up grumpy. Barbara learned that if she goes into Jamie’s room and tells her that she needs to vacuum before she leaves the house, Jamie will become verbally aggressive. Barbara learned that a vulnerability factor for Jamie is not enough sleep. Knowing that she gets triggered by reminders to do chores, Barbara began reminding Jamie after she got home from school and had a snack.

Harvey & Penzo (2009) discussed the “parenting dilemma” where if asking your teen to do something causes an emotional outburst, does that mean you stop asking? According to Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), situations do not have to be “black-and-white” or “all-or-nothing”, and that there is room to find a balance. The question then becomes how do you as a parent balance rules/expectations with your teen’s emotional vulnerability. Research shows that in order to recognize triggers for teens, you must look for patterns and determine if a specific situation consistently leads to an emotional reaction.

For a parent to cope with their teen’s emotional outbursts, it is more effective to reflect upon what risk-factors and triggers are happening rather than get stuck in thinking “I am a bad parent.” In addition, it is important for the parent to do the same work for themselves, to be able to identify their own risk-factors and triggers. For instance, Barbara knows that Jamie’s ongoing struggle causes her to lose sleep, which already sets Barbara up to be more vulnerable when Jamie makes a rude comment. Barbara has put more effort into trying to get more peaceful sleep.

From a parent’s perspective, remind yourself that you are doing the best you can with what you have to work with at this particular time of your life.
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Jesse Weller, M.A. is a Psychological Assistant at the East Bay Behavior Therapy Center. He can be reached at 619-578-3974 or www.eastbaybehaviortherapycenter.com
Source: Harvey, P., Penzo, A. (2009) Parenting a Child Who Has Intense Emotions. New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, CA.