Parents and kids have the ability to trigger each other as no one else can.
“You have no idea what a bad day I had…I have no patience for you right now…”
“What were you thinking!?!?”
“You need to learn a lesson about respect, young man, that is no way to talk to your father.”
“Why don’t you listen to me the first time I tell you???”
“For the love of God, would you get off your stupid phone!?”
“I’m your mother and you will do as I say or else…”
“I’m so sick of you complaining about the food I cook, if you don’t like it, cook for yourself! I quit!”
“No, you absolutely may not go to a party, you’re 14 – what reason would you have for going to a party at your age?!”
and I’m sure that’s on the mild side for some families.
It takes a lot of self-control not to just let out our anger – to react before thinking…to lash out.
Do you know why?
A little bit about the brain
Because when you get triggered, you (almost instantaneously) move into the part of your brain that is based in pure emotion, the primal part of your brain (the limbic brain) where you do less thinking and more reacting. It’s the part of the brain where kids and teens spend most of their time. It’s the part of your brain that “loses it,” where you “flip your lid.”
So we need to calm our nervous system and bring ourselves back to the thinking part of our brains (the pre-frontal cortex) so we can act like the “grown up” and not “stoop to their level.”
Responsibility – Response-ability – ability to respond the way you want.
Okay, but first you have to catch yourself getting triggered. And that’s not easy.
The nanosecond before we react
Let’s start by deciding to catch ourselves before we react – remind yourself that you don’t want to yell and that you’re trying to respond from your thinking brain rather than react with your emotional brain.
Let’s say that your teen comes home from school and is crabby and rude. He’s in his emotional brain and reacting to his outside surroundings without thinking.
And you, too, have had a bad day and feel really irritable. You notice yourself taking this personally and getting triggered.
If you react from your emotional brain, you and I both know it will not go well.
If, however, you’re able to find that nanosecond (and it IS a nanosecond) between FEELING angry and ACTING on that anger, you have a fighting chance of staying connected in the midst of a teenage temper tantrum.
So, let’s say you catch yourself. Congratulations, take a second to pat yourself on the back and feel proud. Catching yourself between feeling angry and reacting is HUGE.
Calming your nervous system
Now, it’s time to calm yourself down so you can be the mature parent acting from your pre-frontal cortex – your thinking brain.
What might you do?
- Take a breath where you focus on an elongated out-breath. The elongated out-breath begins to calm your nervous system.
- Feel whatever you are feeling – feeling your feelings does not mean acting on them. We have a tendency to want to ACT on our feelings. Instead, I’m suggesting you feel them instead. Notice where you feel your feelings, name the feelings, name the sensations in your body. No judgments, you’re entitled to feel whatever you feel.
- Have a little compassion for yourself. You’re raising a teenager and sometime’s it’s tough to take the high road. You feel triggered and need a little compassion for how you’re feeling – give it to yourself.
- Recite a mantra in your head such as “this too shall pass”, “our relationship matters more than this issue”, “I’m the parent, I will coach and guide”, “this is not about me”, “everything will be okay”, “chose the high road”, “I don’t need to fix this” or “there is no rush”. This, too, calms your nervous system down enough to get present and centered.
NOTE: this can happen pretty quickly as you practice it.
Respond instead of reacting
Once you feel calmer and more centered, it’s time to decide how you want to respond:
- Be silent and give your teen space to express his/her feelings. See if you can stay connected while practicing putting yourself in his shoes without taking what he’s saying and doing personally. Imagine perhaps he had a bad day. Perhaps he has some big feelings or something happened to him that he doesn’t know how to express yet. Can you cut him some slack?
- Try to engage. One of my favorite ways to engage is with empathy and compassion – saying something like “bad day, huh?”
- Excuse yourself because you need a break.
- If it feels like your teen has crossed the line:
- Speak with “I” language and call yourself out about what you’re feeling, what you’re afraid of, etc. – “When you speak to me with that rude tone, I feel myself having a hard time not getting upset or angry because I have a need to feel respected and to feel connected to you. Would you be willing to change your tone?” Practice non-attachment – if he says no, then excuse yourself.
- Acknowledge the behavior, but still offer some empathy – “geez, you must be feeling really bad because I know you wouldn’t talk to me that way otherwise.” If it’s too much for you, excuse yourself before you say something you may later regret.
We all just want to feel heard and understood
Our kids want to feel heard, seen, and empathized with more than anything. They complain that we talk “at them” and “don’t understand them.” And I’ll bet that often you probably feel like your teen doesn’t listen to or understand you and how you feel, too.
But you are the adult, so it falls upon you to do the teaching and role modeling. If you want them to understand you, then you must (1) seek to understand them first, and (2) share with them how you feel in a non-judgmental and heart-based way so they can hear you and not feel attacked.
Responding to questions that scare you or that you have strong opinions about
Okay, so another example – your 14 year old comes to you and says “There’s a party on Friday night and I want to go.”
Perhaps your first reaction is panic and fear (mine too!). Inside your head you’re thinking “what? already? a party? no way, I’m sure there will be alcohol and nothing but trouble.”
She’s waiting for your response.
You can choose to react from that place of panic and fear or you can choose to respond.
At this point I think you have 4 options in order to shift out of fear and be ready to respond.
- If you’re feeling calm enough:
- you might simply say “tell me more.” Remember to keep calming yourself with your mantras and elongated out-breath. NOTE: a response does not mean an answer. There is no rush to give her an answer to her question. Right now you’re just being curious – trying to understand her and her feelings.
- you can ask some non-judgmental, logistical questions and then tell her that you’d like to talk to her later (she may tell you “I need to know right now mom” but don’t take the bait.)
- If you’re feeling activated, tell her that you need a moment and you’ll come back to talk about it later. And then make sure you DO circle back when you’ve had a chance to calm down and find your center.
- Or you can do my personal favorite – this can be done when you are activated or calm – it’s more of a “tool” that replaces reacting: reflective listening – repeating back what she’s saying, almost word for word. “So, there’s a party Friday and you’d like to go?” and after each response, you repeat back what she just said. You might think this would drive her nuts, but most teens love it. They feel completely heard and it allows you a chance to calm down and not have to respond right away. You get to hear her fully. Give it a try. I find it calms me down to simply have a tool to employ.
No matter what you decide to do – these four options help you to gather your wits and respond maturely rather than react from a place of fear. I assure you, if your kids feel heard and understood, they will be much more likely to listen to you and try to understand your point of view.
Your answer as to whether she can go to the party is only half of what she’s asking…she also wants to know that you care about her and why she would want to go to the party. And secretly she may want you to say no, so she doesn’t have to. Teens are complicated creatures!
It’s time to stop taking everything at face value
Our kids’ tantrums are just them acting out big feelings that they don’t know how to express. We barely know how to express our big feelings, how can we expect them to?
Our teens’ questions are often a test to see if we trust them, if we want to really KNOW them, if we’re hearing them and understanding their lives.
Our kids’ whining is just them telling us that they need more attention and want some time with us.
Our teen’s grunts, eye rolls, and short answers are them trying to individuate from us, trying desperately to not need us when they still deeply need us, and resenting the inner conflict between wanting closeness and wanting distance…and them wanting to know that we love them and “get them” even when they are not acting lovable.
Empathy is always the answer
It’s time to dig deep to put ourselves into their shoes. To really see them for who they are and stop imposing your view of how they “should be” onto them. It’s time to search for the needs behind the behaviors. To find the feelings beneath their “acting out”.
Empathy is the act of putting yourselves in someone else’s shoes even if you don’t agree with them. To really try to FEEL what they are are feeling and understand where they are coming from.
Guess what they may be feeling, guess what they need that they aren’t able to express. Be a detective and try to figure out what’s REALLY going on.
If we want a close relationship with our teens, we must master:
- feeling our feelings but not acting them out,
- finding the nanosecond before we react,
- responding from a calm and centered space, and
- relating to them (and yourself) with compassion and empathy.
You can break this habit and train your brain to respond rather than react.
Remember, you are their role model for how to handle situations when THEY are triggered. As you practice this with them, they will learn more creative ways to handle their anger and other big feelings.
Even you’re committed to responding instead of reacting and not yelling, there will still be times when you yell, roll your eyes, have tone, be critical, or act in some way that you aren’t so proud of. And that’s part of being human…we are imperfect and your kids are imperfect. But we can TRY to do better.
Remember, after you react, make sure you repair trust. The good news is that struggle builds resilience. So you can let go of some of the guilt and focus on the repair and reconnection!