6 Ways to Teach Teens to Take Responsibility for Their Emotions
As a parent, have you ever felt hostage to your teen’s emotions? Teenagers are definitely prone to some intense feelings, and they can display “over the top” behaviors as a result, such as:
- Lashing out, insulting, or blaming others
- Flying off the handle – screaming or breaking things in anger
- Complaining, whining, or pouting when things don’t go their way
- Holding grudges, ignoring you, giving you the silent treatment, or acting passive-aggressive
- Falling apart, crying or panicking over seemingly small things
It is so hard to watch our children hurt. It is very tempting to try to cheer our teens up when they’re sad or calm them down when they’re angry. Unfortunately, regulating our teens’ emotions for them prevents them from gaining vital social and emotional skills. They must learn how to regulate their own emotions now, so that they can act responsibly as an adult later. The best thing that parents can do for their teens is to teach them how to be responsible for their own emotions. Here are tips for how to do it:
Our teens are much more likely to repeat what we do than what we say. If every time we get angry, we snap at our spouse, throw something, slam doors, or yell, then our teens will learn to do the same. If every time we get sad, we sob or blame others for our situation, we are teaching our teens that behavior. However, if we stay calm when we are experiencing frustrations, excuse ourselves to take a deep breath when we’re angry, and talk through our disappointments, then our teens will learn to do the same.
It’s also important to role model appropriate responses while your teen is flying off the handle. We can definitely be sounding boards for our kids, but if we allow our emotions to escalate with our teen’s or react to their every mood, we are only reinforcing their behavior. When your teen is in distress, pause. Before you react, take a breath and stay calm and businesslike. Encourage your teen to excuse themselves to calm down, but offer to help your teen think through their problem when they feel ready. You might say, “I know you’re very disappointed and this is a tough situation. Why don’t you take some time for yourself, and when you’re a little bit calmer we can brainstorm some ideas to handle this?”
Everybody has sensitive spots – things that initiate a strong reaction in us. Experts call these “triggers,” and it is very helpful to know what your triggers are. We should know our triggers, and we should help our teens identify theirs. If we don’t take time to figure out our triggers, then we spend our energy angry with people who, intentionally or unintentionally, push our buttons. Common triggers can be pride, respect, approval, injustice, independence, envy, and shame.
We can be helpful to our teens by first helping them gain self-awareness through feedback. When your teen is feeling calm, you might try to begin an open, nonjudgmental conversation by sharing some of your own triggers, and then observing one or two of your teen’s triggers. Be sure to not be accusatory or talk about the effects of their triggers. Simply state the facts, such as “I notice you often get upset when you think something isn’t fair” or “You seem to get angry when someone argues with you, as if you feel like you aren’t being respected.” Ask their opinion on your observation and then ask them to consider how they could react differently next time that button is pushed. You might be able to brainstorm ways to prevent their trigger, or at least how they can react more appropriately.
Believe in your Teen.
Your teen needs to believe they are capable of handling difficulties and managing their emotions. Their belief largely depends on YOUR belief in them. If you jump in to their every problem and try to fix it for them, you are inadvertently communicating to your teen that you don’t think they are capable of handling situations on their own. Instead, when they are facing a challenge, try pointing out times in the past that they have handled problems well or mention specific skills or talents your teen has that you think will help them be successful this time.
Don’t Minimize your Teen’s Emotions.
Sometimes our teen’s emotions seem like a total overreaction. You can’t believe they are upset about whatever situation they are in! But, no matter how silly your teen’s emotions seem to you, they feel real to him or her. Do your best to give them respect, and never indicate that you think their emotions are wrong. Instead you can acknowledge their feelings (“I can see that you’re very upset”) and encourage them to sort out their emotions in private (their room) until they feel calm again.
Plan for Difficult Situations.
Research has demonstrated that we can actually be more successful in life (and less emotional) by planning our response (or making a decision about how we are going to act) in certain situations before they ever happen. For example, many teens are perfectly aware that they should stay away from drugs, and they have every intention of doing so. However, in the absence of a plan, when they are confronted with the cool kid offering them a beer at a party, they tend to say whatever they think will please the other person or make them most accepted in the moment. Instead, if parents take the time to help their teen think through possible peer pressure situations, and then, come up with responses that allow your teen to make the right choice while still being cool or not alienating their peers, the chance that they will say no is increased significantly. So, if you know that your teen has a specific trigger, help them plan their response to that situation in advance.
Teach your Teen to Assign Responsibility and Blame Realistically
To regulate emotions effectively, youth must also learn to assign responsibility and blame in a realistic way. Adolescents often blame other people for their problems, assert that nothing is fair, and claim that everyone is out to ruin their lives. This behavior is usually motivated by a teen’s desire to avoid disapproval, consequences, embarrassment, or judgment. No one likes to be seen by others as a failure.
To help teens more readily accept responsibility, you can try the following:
- Avoid focusing too much attention on your teen when they blame others, which can reinforce the behavior.
- Concentrate on your teen’s behavior, not what caused it. Help your teen to refocus on how to fix the problem rather than why the situation arose.
- Look for situations when your teen is being accountable. Praise them whenever you see them being honest, admitting a mistake, or taking responsibility for a problem.
- Focus any punishment you give on your teen’s behavior, not on your teen as a person. Avoid calling your teen names or labeling them as a “bad kid.” Make sure the punishment for any infraction is not too severe; otherwise, your teen will continue to assign blame to others to avoid consequences.
Don’t get involved in your teen’s emotions out of guilt or your own need to make your teen feel better. If you teach your teen how to regulate emotions, and you consistently demonstrate those techniques, over time you will notice that your teen will begin to use these strategies more regularly on their own. However, remember that learning to regulate emotions is a lifelong journey. None of us are ever perfect at it, so be sure to also be patient as your teen tries to incorporate these strategies into their life.