Maniac Meltdown, Gillray 1803
Recently I posed the following question on Twitter:
What do you do when your teen has a meltdown?
The most fascinating answer: “Run like the wind!”
If you’re a parent to a teenager, you’ll chuckle. Then you’ll remember the last time your teen ‘lost it’, and wonder if that might have been a better response than the one you had. Teenage meltdowns can be legendary, and create incredible frustration both for parents and for the teens who feel out of control.
Here are some questions parents ask.
- How can I know if what my teen is expressing is a normal part of development, or is cause to worry?
- Is there anything I can do to prevent my teen from losing it, or is it best to just wait for things to calm down on their own?
- When do I need to intervene? How can I intervene effectively?
Whether your child’s personality runs more to passive resistance or outright defiance, there will come a time when they completely lose it. Your response can make an enormous difference in the lessons learned, and can help create an environment where your teen can find more effective ways of expressing their emotions.
Lets start with understanding why teenagers have meltdowns. Is your teen expressing a normal teen emotion, or is this something to worry about?
In a recent Wall Street Journal article Whats Wrong with the Teenage Mind?, Ms. Gopnik, professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, explained part of the problem that today’s teens face has to do with their emotional and biological development being out of sync. Teens are entering puberty at a younger age, yet not reaching a stable adult maturity until later than at any other time in history. There’s nothing abnormal about teens’ energy or passion; what becomes a problem is when the emotional control systems aren’t developed enough to keep a reign on stress responses and voila! An emotional meltdown erupts.
According to Ms. Gopnik and other researchers of teenage emotional and physical development, the way that teens develop a mature ability to handle stress and express emotions without losing control is by practicing. Each time your teenager experiences a stressful situation – they get in trouble at home, they have a romantic relationship crisis, they didn’t make the sports team, they’re a victim of bullying, the shared-parenting situation they’re in becomes untenable – the way they respond emotionally quite literally changes the architecture of their brains.
So does this mean that each meltdown makes the next one easier? Sure. Just as a stream follows the path of least resistance, your teenager’s brain will respond “mindlessly” (in other words, without conscious choice) to whatever feels most natural or familiar. One meltdown creates a literal brain pathway that makes the next meltdown ‘easier’.
This does NOT mean, however, that things are hopeless, or that you might as well just step back and hope things get better on their own.
HOW to intervene effectively when your teen has a meltdown.
Teenagers positively crave tools that will enable them to handle stress without coming unglued. They won’t find these tools on their own, and parents who respond to emotional outbursts in kind only make the situation worse. Here is where understanding that your teens’ emotional and biological development are out of sync will be put to good use.
HOW teens learn healthy stress responses is by practicing. By literally having opportunities for the brain to develop physical patterns – a “stream-bed” if you will – that result in less explosive and progressively more mature responses to emotionally charged situations. With society’s focus on providing ever more extensive educational opportunities, what is left by the wayside are those “life” experiences – the after school jobs, apprenticeships, and ‘doing with’ opportunities under supervision of adults who are there to help guide and teach and mentor. According to Ms. Gopnik, today’s teenagers are missing out on the irreplaceable experience of practice.
Here are six powerful ways that you can effectively intervene with your teenager’s meltdowns, and create for them an environment where practice is expected and encouraged.
- Understand. Keep in mind that your teen’s emotional responses are real, they simply lack the mechanisms to express them in a mature fashion.
- Respond. How you respond when your teen starts “losing it” will have a profound effect on whether or not this is a learning experience or not. When you get angry right back, remind your child of their immaturity or the mistakes he made, you provide no tools for them to grasp hold of. Instead, respond with gentle expressions of support for their feelings in the moment. Your teen is counting on you to help them regain control of their emotions.
- Give space. Remember, teenagers need practice reigning in those out of control emotional responses. They’re quite literally practicing LIFE with you! Give them time to calm down, and lots of space in which to do so. Nothing will be gained by trying to pound home your message while your teen is in ‘meltdown mode’.
- Debrief. After the crisis has passed, ask respectful open-ended questions. Like this: “How did you feel inside when I told you that you were grounded for being 30 minutes late? What did I miss that you were wanting me to understand?” Role play different scenarios and discover together ways that might work better the next time around.
- Model. Whether they admit it or not, your teen is looking to you for clues to how to do this ‘life’ thing. Do you fly off the handle when someone cuts you off in traffic? Yell when you’re tired or frustrated? Talk over others rather than having a real give-and-take conversation? Use alcohol to numb your own feelings of overwhelm? Refuse to apologize? While your teenager is practicing (read that ‘making mistakes, trying to learn from them, getting better’), they will copy what they see most from you.
- Collaborate. Work together. If you and your teen have a habit of antagonistic interaction, sit down when you’re both calm and come up with ways to practice interrupting the cycle. Own your half of the problem, and invite your teen to join with you in finding a better way.
Everyone gets angry. You get angry. Your parents got angry. Even God gets angry. As your teenager grows into their own emotionally healthy habits of expressing upset, you can help by providing them the tools they need, and the grace they deserve. Teenage meltdowns need not take over the peace of your family, and if they already have, it is never too late to turn things around!
What effective responses have you found that help your teenager when they’re in ‘meltdown mode’? If you were a ‘meltdown teen’, what responses helped? What made it harder to regain control? As a parent, what is your biggest concern when helping your teen practice a better way?