Big Kids with Big Feelings (page 4)
Q. I’m afraid my middle-school-aged daughter is going to turn into an “angry teenager.” Things seem to be going well for her right now but she can be unhappy, aggressive and moody, and she sometimes gets physical. She had a very hard time in elementary school. Is it possible that she could be working out feelings from years ago from things that upset her that she might not even be conscious of now? If so, how do I help her deal with them? Does a teenager end up crying to help heal the hurts or do they deal with things in a different way?
The issues that are troubling in early childhood do migrate into adolescence, if the feelings wrapped in early hurts aren’t shared with a supportive adult. This is what creates angry teens: they’ve been trying to hold feelings at bay for a long time. Finding no one who will listen to their feelings makes them feel isolated and frightened—they may not know precisely why they feel upset any longer, but the fact that no one will listen makes it doubly hard. Their early childhood feelings get pasted on present situations—“You never listen to me!” or “You’re not really interested—just go away!” can easily be echoes of earlier experiences that didn’t go well for them or for their parents. When children try to get their upset feelings heard, most of us parents do as the culture tells us. We try to get them to stop crying, or stop being angry. We tell them their upsets are trivial. Then, children have to bottle it all up once again. So the fear and sadness they have stored since early childhood erupt cloaked in anger by the time they are teens, because the feelings of isolation have created a thick cover over the frightened, vulnerable feelings they need to express as healing tears and trembling release the tension.
This is no fault of yours–it happens in every family. Parents work hard and don’t always get the time they would like to relax and connect with their kids. You can read more about this process in our booklet on Supporting Adolescents.
So now, what to do? One possible move is to find her a counselor–someone outside the family to talk to can be very helpful. But if she doesn’t like the counselor after one session, move on and find another. Kids can tell very quickly whether it will click and be a useful relationship. The credentials a person has have nothing to do with whether your child will feel safe with them.
Ultimately, she wants you to know and understand her feelings, and it’s your attention that will be most powerful in helping her through the feelings she has been storing. No counselor can do what you can do in her life. Bringing your attention to her, even when you’re not sure what to do, is a good move.
Can you and she get away for an overnight together, something fun or adventurous? Short of that, can you start and be regular about Special Time for her, doing what she likes to do? At her age, that might be experimenting with makeup, going to a movie, trying out 20 pair of high heels at the shoe mart, listening to the music she likes. Ask, and see what you and she can set up. Be delighted with her during these times. Do not bring up sore subjects. Don’t ask questions, don’t pry, don’t refer to any of the difficulties in your lives. Just enjoy her and keep your mind focused on what a good child you have brought into the world, and what she is telling you about who she is and what she likes.
Then, when feelings begin to fly (and they will as you make it safer with this uninterrupted attention), move closer and keep listening. Don’t argue or try to reason. Just let her know you’re sorry she has to feel this badly. And if she gets aggressive, do whatever you need to do to make sure she can’t hurt you. She wants to cry and tremble, but she may have to use her strength for a time before she can open up such a vulnerable spot. So you may have to provide some resistance to help her get that positive “I am going to fight for my life!” energy going. She’s fighting to get to big feelings, but it looks like she’s fighting you. For instance, if she’s trying to shut you out of her room, put your foot in the door before it slams, and let her push as hard as she can against you. Our you could hold up a big pillow between you and her, so that as she fights, she lands blows that aren’t damaging because of the awkward angle and the increased distance held between you and her. Or you might even direct her: “I can’t let you hurt me, and I see that you’re fuming, so just pretend that this bed is me. Here’s Johnny’s plastic bat—let me see what you feel like doing.”
The energy she expends will help her to finally release a flood of tears and perhaps some trembling, the signs that old feelings are beginning to release their hold on her mind. She won’t give you any indication that she’s healing until she’s finished with this emotional episode, but if you can ride it out, you’ll see a big change in attitude when it’s over.
In any case, asking a child to stop being intensely upset doesn’t usually do much good. The child’s mind has been commandeered by an intense fight-or-flight reaction, and reason doesn’t penetrate at all while that feeling is hot. It’s good for children who have been frightened for a long time to fight for themselves. They don’t want to hurt anyone. They just want to do battle—there’s some old battle that they feel like they lost, and they need to recover their sense of power. It’s the parent’s job to try to help the child get to the root feelings by hanging in there, managing safety, and remaining conscious that is a necessary stage that can open up big feelings of helplessness, aloneness, despair, and fright. Once opened and worked through, your child will feel much better.
One interesting thing I’ve found is that young people can work through their feelings of anger and the underlying fear and grief much more quickly if their parent will find a listener, and release their own feelings that stem from that earlier time. You can learn more about this in our booklet on Listening Partnerships for Parents. For instance, if the child witnessed angry times in the family when she was very young, it will help her to heal if her parent will find a listener and work through his own feelings about those particular times. Without taking this step, they can tell that we feel too worried, too angry, too guilty, or too exhausted to handle the feelings they want and need to release.
Your first step would be to concentrate on How Special Time Works with Teens and bringing more lighthearted fun to your family. Then, get some listening time to increase the support you feel. Things will move forward from there.
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Reprinted with the permission of Hand in Hand Parenting. © 1997-2011 Hand in Hand
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