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A resource produced for parents and educators by Lourdes Hill College in Brisbane. 

  • Writer's pictureLourdes Hill College

How to find the calm when your teen is drowning in emotion

By Linda Stade

You know those moments when you collect your teen from school, and they look at you with watery eyes and their expression is a solemn mask that could crack at any moment? They throw their bag into the car, jump in, and… silence.

As soon as you ask, “What’s going on?” they dissolve. It could be sobbing, it could be yelling, or it could be that quiet wrenching emotional pain that makes every word sound strangled. It feels as though your child is flailing around in big emotions that threaten to drown them and you’re the lifeguard on duty. But should you jump in?

Those moments are often triggered by friendship issues or mean behaviour, but it could be a failed assessment, or a teacher enforcing school expectations. It could also be your child is tired or overwhelmed. Whatever the trigger, this is an opportunity to step up for your teen. Not by diving in and rescuing, but by coaching and helping them swim for themselves.

Is it really a crisis?

Kristina Morgan is a clinical psychologist at Lourdes Hill College. She says, “We all have a line of coping and sometimes we fall over that line. It’s very human. Unfortunately, often parents see this as a crisis and respond with panic. As we all know, panic never has, and never will, help with any situation.”

When you panic and rescue in response to a child’s big emotions you teach them the following:

  1. Emotions are dangerous and need to be squished

  2. The world is not safe

  3. They are not capable of coping

  4. Nobody but you can help them

When we pause, gain clarity around the situation, and respond in proportion to the problem, we give kids the accurate feedback they require. They learn to reality test, and they become more resilient. Our goal is to have children who can discern the gradients between a problem and an emergency and respond appropriately.

Kristina Morgan says, “Ninety-nine percent of the time when a child is experiencing big emotions, it is because they are running on empty. They are depleted and need connection and affection to replenish them. We need to teach kids that you don’t need a crisis to ask for connection and comfort.”

When we refill our kids’ emotional cups and send them off to finish their day, we get a more accurate view of their problems. If they don’t recover, we know there is something more seriously wrong and we can attend to that. However, this clarity is impossible if we treat everything as an emergency.

What do adults take into these situations?

Often, if our child is upset, we get activated ourselves and become upset, or angry, or frustrated. That is understandable and human, however, we have an adult state brain that can exercise judgement. We can calm ourselves and discern the difference between facts and feelings. It is our job to do just that. We can’t meet panic with panic.

Kristina Morgan says when dealing with your child’s distress, “The emotional discomfort is not the problem, the discomfort is the symptom. What else is there when the pain, anger, or frustration clears? That is the problem.”

If you sit with the discomfort; theirs and yours, it is enormously empowering for your child. They take their cues from you, and they know they will be okay. The fact that you are calm about their uncomfortable emotions means they are safe. Teens begin to develop an ‘I can’ attitude.

But how?

It is one thing to say, don’t meet panic with panic, but how do we do that, especially when we are emotional? This emotional coaching model is tried and tested.

  1. Model calm. Breathe and share space with your emotional teen. You don’t need to speak. By creating a calm space, you show that every emotional moment is not a crisis.

  2. Model responding, rather than reacting. Don’t ‘do’ anything until your brain re-engages. You’ll know this has happened when your heart rate returns to normal, and you can think clearly.

  3. When you and your child are calm, pause. Don’t fix it. Let them know you trust them by letting them do their own problem-solving. It’s your quiet way of saying, “You’ve got this”. They don’t need to have a perfect plan yet, or know everything, they just need to begin thinking. Know the more you speak, the less they learn, the less they listen, and the less they can think for themselves. It may go against every instinct but be quiet.

  4. When your teen starts planning, ask questions rather than provide answers.

    1. What do you think?

    2. What other options do you see?

    3. If that doesn’t work, what’s something different you could do?

    4. What would you tell a friend to do?

    5. What would your friend tell you to do?

    6. What would you do if you were being extra kind to yourself?

  5. What are the options? There are always many options. It doesn’t matter if some are not practical, or you wouldn’t choose them. What is important is thinking and breaking open the ‘this is a complete disaster’ moment.

  6. Ask them to identify the small steps THEY can take. Check-in after they take them.

  7. Help them identify other adults who have their back. They must learn that parents aren’t the only people they can talk to.

Final thought….

Life is not easy. By rescuing and protecting our kids from upset we deprive them of happiness as adults. They will panic when things are hard because they expect everything to be easy and they’ll wait for someone to dive in and rescue them.

When we meet their panic with our calm, we promote resilience. They know deep inside themselves:

  • I can stay calm

  • I can think

  • I can brainstorm all the options

  • I can try different options

  • I can review and see how it went

  • I can start again

  • I can seek assistance.

You are gifting them the deeply held belief that ‘All of this is do-able. I am capable. I am fully human, and I will not drown in my emotions. I don’t need a lifeguard to save me.’


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