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How to help teenagers manage their emotions

The teenage years are an emotional rollercoaster of fantastic highs and moments when life simply seems too hard. Helping teens navigate their emotions can be a challenge. Here are 6 ways you can help.

NEWS 9 Mar 2023

Slammed bedroom doors. Silence. Tears and tempers. Moments of confidence and hope followed by disappointment, anger and frustration…The teenage years can run an emotional gamut and parents ride this hair-raising emotional rollercoaster with their child.

Knowing what to say and do when your teenager is struggling with life situations can be tricky.

“The years from 13 to 18 are a time of change. Every child is different but a lot of emotions are around sense of identity. Teenagers are moving towards adulthood and how they see themselves, how they want to be seen by others and what they stand for can affect how they interact with others and solve challenges,” says Graham Leys, Head of Senior (Boys).

“Often for boys there’s a gradual change from the reactionary responses of younger, less mature boys to developing a more measured approach to dealing with stresses. Boys become confident and comfortable in who they are but that that ride can be rocky for some and smoother for others.”

Helen Wadden, Head of Senior (Girls), says teenagers share many emotional highs and lows.

“Emotions like anger and a feeling of devastation, that the world is collapsing in on them and that there is nothing anyone can do to help are common,” she says.

“In Senior School, emotions can be tied to relationship breakdowns, either within a friendship group or with a romantic partner and those situations are difficult for young people to handle. They might feel betrayed, confused and humiliated and those emotions can be overwhelming. It’s important for parents to remember these emotions are very real for their child, no matter how insignificant they may seem to adults.”

Recognising that the teenage years can be charged with emotions, how can parents help their child through the highs and lows?

6 ways to help teenagers manage their emotions

  1. Keep lines of communication open and stay calm. When your teenager is emotional, calm discussion about possible solutions and negotiation can help. Use phrases like, ‘I can see this is troubling you, I’m thinking this might be the best way to help’ or ‘I think it’s a good idea to speak to someone at school about this, who do you think is the best person to talk to?’ Negotiate calmly to try and minimise your child putting up resistance.
  2. You don’t have to ‘fix’ their emotional situation. It’s natural instinct for parents to want to solve their teenager’s problem to make them feel better. “It’s better to acknowledge that your child’s emotions are real and painful and to ask if there’s anything you can do. Acknowledge that you can’t fix how they’re feeling, but you believe their emotions are serious and painful right now and you are there for them,” says Helen.
  3. Ask for help. If you are worried about your teenager’s mental health and safety, it’s time to get expert help from their school or a health professional. “Your child’s wellbeing is a partnership between your family and school and the school is here to help,” says Graham. “Your child may resist but explain that you are involving others because you are genuinely concerned and realise they need additions support and that is okay.”
  4. Don’t compare your teen experiences and theirs. The emotional challenges you faced as a teen are different to your child’s experience. Social media means personal news travels further and today’s teenagers may be juggling more pressures and expectations from parents, friends, partners, teachers, their Head of House, sports coach and themselves. “The danger is for parents to say ‘I’ve been there’. That doesn’t help your teenager and it trivialises how they are feeling. Don’t use our own catastrophe scale to judge what your teenager is going through,” says Helen.
  5. Keep connected, even if your teenager doesn’t respond. Expect plenty of times when your child won’t even seem to notice that you’re around! However, keep offering to do the things you enjoy doing together. “You might be kept at arms-length but your teenager knows you are there for them as they work through their feelings,” says Graham. “You might not get much back but hang in there and keep offering opportunities to connect. Think about the relationship you want to have with your child for their entire life and keep contributing to that.”
  6. Stick to your boundaries. As hormones rage and teenagers navigate the stresses of exams, subject choices, friendship groups and romantic relationships, there may be times when they don’t treat you as well as you’d expect. While being empathetic matters, it’s important to maintain boundaries. “When a young person’s mind is emotional and in a state of chaos, boundaries are a way of nurturing and caring for them. Setting clear boundaries contributes to normality and helps them keep the chaos at bay a little. Don’t compromise boundaries because your child might be highly emotional,” says Helen.

From a parent’s perspective, 'Rachel' is the mother of two boys who have navigated their teenage years and come out the other side. Here she shares her own insights -

“With boys, it’s hard to get information. They’d come home and no matter how many ways I asked a question, I’d sometimes get nothing. Or I’d get an aggressive attitude and then I knew something was happening in their world because that was uncharacteristic.

As a mother, you want to take action – you want to fix things straightaway. However, at one point, my oldest son said he wasn’t going to tell me anything anymore because I was always in ‘solution mode’.

So, we came to an agreement that when my boys wanted to tell me something that they’d either say they just wanted me to listen, or they wanted me to listen and then give advice, or they wanted me to listen and then take some action. If I was going to take action, I’d let them know what I thought I needed to do and I asked them to trust me that I knew how to manage the situation.

I think it also helped as a parent of teenagers to have good friends who were also parenting teens who could talk about what was happening in their world, and share experiences within a ‘cone of silence’, normalise what was happening, and then share ideas on how to support our children.”

Wellbeing webinar

Watch the video below for a recording of our recent How to help teenagers manage their emotions webinar event. Hosted by Diane Furusho, Deputy Principal Student Wellbeing and a panel of experienced professionals, including Graham Leys, Head of Senior (Boys), and Helen Wadden, Head of Senior (Girls), they share their expertise and practical strategies for assisting teenagers through their emotional journey.