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How to help your grouchy teen

Posted November 1

In this edition of LIFEadvice Coaches Kim Giles and Nicole Cunningham help you understand why your teen is causing conflict at home and how to help them process emotions. (Deseret Photo)

Question: My husband and I have six children and have always had a happy home, or until the last few years anyway. We have always been a close family but the last few years we can’t seem to connect well with our older kids. I understand that the changes of puberty and high school can be overwhelming but my older children seem to be angry, disconnected and impatient with us and their younger siblings. What can I do to diffuse all this hostility and connect my family again?

Answer:

The real reason that anyone behaves in a badly is they are scared of failure — not being good enough, or loss — the fear of missing out, being mistreated, or being taken from. It is these fears, which cause us and our kids to feel grouchy, angry and even mean at times.

During the teenage years, children are experiencing more fear and insecurity than ever before. They are also going through a natural process of starting to pull away from the family, so they can eventually become independent adults. The two of these factors together can make for a great deal of moody anger and rude behavior.

Anger, frustration and negativity that come across as misdirected rage towards the family, are really suppressed fear. When anger and fear are shut down, not accepted or pushed aside they can be suppressed, which can lead to exaggerated and explosive behavior.

Just like happiness and sadness, frustration and anger are emotions that require validation and time. We must validate the feelings that come up in our older children, listen to them, and honor their right to be experiencing this and feeling the way they do, instead of just correcting them. They must be allowed to be angry, scared and grouchy at times. However, guidance is often needed to teach teens how to process and express their anger in acceptable ways. You must understand the huge boil of emotions they are experiencing at this time, and focus more on connection than correction.

Suppressed anger can look like these three behaviors in your teen — denial, withdrawal and brooding.

  • Denial — this is the complete disconnection and denial of any and all feelings. Often in this stage we see children abandon their responsibilities, reject the ones they love, and step away from their connection to their families. Their suppressed anger can be diffused by opening up the conversation and allowing space for the emotions to be explored. Denial is the result of disregarding what they are feeling and not making time to feel the anger and process what it is really about. If you haven't been a safe pace in the past and have lectured more than you listened, you may have to apologize for that and it may take a while for your teen to trust you enough to open up with you. But you can fix this with respect, time and commitment to honor them and what they need.
  • Withdrawal - this is most commonly the behavior we see as the knee-jerk reaction to anger and frustration. We see children pull back, shut down and not share what is in their minds and heart. A gentle and patient approach is required here to again provide a safe space and the respect that will encourage your child to open up and connect. Allow your child to have some say in how and when they communicate their feelings, though, rather than trying to push too hard which can lead to greater withdrawal.
  • Brooding — we see this commonly in teenagers, as the anger and fear are festering and internalized. Brooding anger is often the calm before the storm. Explosive anger and misdirected rage can be the outcome and although unpleasant, it is much healthier at this stage than holding it inside. Validation around their right to feel the way they do and asking if they are in the mood to talk about their frustrations is a great way to start a conversation. Expression is always better than suppression. Share with your teen the side-effects that come from suppressing anger, which include stress, anxiety, depression, poor sleep and damage to relationships with others.

Suppressed anger and the behaviors associated with it can be corrected as you move your teen out of fear into greater trust and love. There is a great worksheet on our website that steps you through an Emotional Autopsy to process emotions. I highly recommend you get it and look for ways to show your teen how to use it. If they are interested in trying it, take a picture of it with your phone and text it to them. (But only do this if you have asked if they are interested and say they want it.) You can also help them to experience less fear by teaching them (by example and the things you say) the two important principles below, which help lessen fear.

  • Teach them that they (and all human beings) have the same infinite, unchanging, intrinsic value, which means we are always good enough - because life is a classroom not a test. This principle helps them to feel safer and takes the fear of failure off the table. Teens are especially scared of the opinions of other people and you must keep reminding them that opinions can’t change their value, and no person can be better or worse than anyone else.
  • Help them understand that everything that shows up in their life is a lesson. Every day the universe is bringing them opportunities to learn and become stronger, wiser and more loving. When they can see each experience as a lesson, it changes the amount they suffer. They see the world as there to serve them, not to torture them.

Another great way to connect to your teen is to make sure you get some one on one time with them every week. Make this a time of fun and be engaged in learning about your child’s life and mindset, instead of just approaching this time as disciplinary correction or getting to the bottom of their issues. Take them out for food (they love that) and make sure there is no lecturing or interrogations. This is a time to listen and validate their right to be where they are and think they way they do. You might want to make sure you have our Validating Communication Worksheet and study it beforehand so you handle this right. Like all of us, children and especially teenagers want to be heard, accepted and acknowledged. Listen to them and invest in the relationship. Speak about your concerns from a place of vulnerability (sharing your fears) instead of your authority and really make the effort to show up consistently each week. Share with your child how you see every situation in your life an opportunity to learn and how this helps you come out of fear and into greater trust and love. Some great questions to ask teens when you are together include:

  • How are you feeling about life right now?
  • Is there anything I can do, to show up for you more and give you more support?
  • Is there any way that we as your parents can improve how we handle situations in our home?
By asking these questions you are showing willingness and openness to listen, learn from them and validate their feelings. You are not surrendering your power here or giving them authority in your home, but you are creating connection and the space for solutions to be found and feelings to be expressed, which can stop the denial, withdrawal and brooding. We believe these kinds of conversations are especially important for at-risk teens because teen suicide is on the rise. Be patient with these conversations and drop your expectations or attachments to a specific outcome. Trust that with greater connection your child will feel safer and safer. Anger and misdirected rage take time to heal. Your child may also need some professional help to gain some new skills for dealing with their thoughts, emotions and experiences at school. Check out some of the coaching options we offer for parents and teens. Feel reassured that the foundations you continue to lay down for your children are never in vain. No matter what the age of your children, they watch you and your behavior as an example and crave connection and validation from you. Do your best to make sure your language and your behavior heal instead of hurt. Commit to validating and continue to pour into your relationship with them. Here is a link to access many other articles and tips for dealing with teens. You can do this.

Kimberly Giles is the president of claritypointcoaching.com. She is the author of the book "Choosing Clarity: The Path to Fearlessness" and a popular life coach, speaker and people skills expert.

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