Last week I attended a seminar entitled “Surviving the Rollercoaster of Adolescence”; the speaker was Chris Hudson from of Understanding Teenagers. While I can truthfully say that I have already encountered and survived the steep climb and the initial stomach-lurching plunge of the rollercoaster that is likened to living with teens, and have definitely encountered a few curves and turns that have left me breathless and white-knuckled; I believe there are a few more corkscrew loops yet to be travelled before I can safely say that I have survived the ride – hence my interest in wanting to hear his thoughts.
As I think about rollercoasters, I can’t help but recall our family’s recent trip to Movie World. A day with teenagers in a theme park is very much like living a day packed with a range of emotion; thrills and fears, excitement and tension. One of the things that makes the teen years so challenging is the unpredictability of your teen’s mood, and also the enormous shift in how they relate to you. On their journey to independence, it is natural and important for them to push against their parents in an effort to find their own sense of self. (A deeply confusing place to be in for both parent and child.) And while it’s easy to blame hormones for all the problems, there are other factors that contribute to them being emotionally changeable. Things like: the amount of sleep they get, personal insecurities, and social issues they face… and a whole stack of homework pressure.
One of the hardest things I’ve found about this life stage has been knowing how to navigate my way by trying to keep good connections without turning into an emotional wreck myself or becoming just as volatile and cranky as them. At times, I’ve been so fearful of getting my head chewed off ‘just because’ or being diminished to ‘worst mother ever’ because I dared to enforce a boundary. Angry, hurtful words are hard to hear and even harder to let go of and not take personally. Equally hard, has been to watch a teen struggle – with peer acceptance, anxiety, and the challenge of growing up. When they retreat into their shell and lock you out the feeling of helplessness can be a heavy burden.
So when Chris began to talk about having emotional equality in your home, my ears pricked up. He encouraged us to think differently about how to view emotions. Instead of labelling some emotions as right and others wrong; happiness to be seen as normal and anger to be something avoided, a light switched on for me. So many times I’ve made the mistake of trying desperately to keep everyone happy, and have avoided addressing issues for fear of ‘poking the bear’. I’ve been quick to jump in and patch things back to ‘happy face’, rather than walk alongside and just be there. “Emotions just are,” he said, then encouraged us to have a mantra for your family like: “In this house all emotions are okay.” Some are easier to live with, but they are still just emotions and all part of our human experience. I began to see that by equalising emotions, it normalises them.
I like to think of emotions as being a little window into someone’s heart. An indicator of what’s going on inside. Whether it be disappointment, excitement, anxiety, sadness or joy; all these things can be a prompt to ask them how they are, and why they’re feeling the way they are. Sometimes they have no idea why! Rather than be fearful of all negative emotions, especially anger, finding a way together to helpfully express those emotions constructively, without dismissing them or escalating them can be such a positive help to your teen. Validating their feelings goes a long way in building an open relationship with them such as saying things like, “I can see this is really hard for you”. Showing your teens that you are willing to sit with and accept uncomfortable feelings, just as you embrace feeling good, is a valuable lesson; for both yourself and your teen.
Rollercoasters are the perfect description for being a parent of teenagers. However, if you are someone yet to enter this life stage, take heart. I think waiting in line and watching others ahead of you being thrown around at top speed and possibly screaming, can heighten your anticipation of impending doom and fuel you with dread the longer you watch and wait. Once on the ride, you’re on the ride. Safely strapped in, you may still be terrified inside, but whatever comes next, you’ll make it through the track. You may even enjoy some of it. I always like to watch people getting off a ride… some are white, others a little weak kneed, but most are smiling. I hope to be one of the later.