Angry looking teen

It’s hard to remain calm in the face of your young person either crying, hurling abuse at you or telling you to go away, even more so if you yourself are feeling unheard and frustrated. So many buttons are being pushed for them and for you. It is incredibly difficult to create space for that kind of emotional interaction. It’s hard work communicating with teens and tweens.

It’s massively unfair and also the biggest understatement to say preteens and teenagers are ‘emotional’. There is so much going on internally for them. Anger or fear can be explosive and sadness can mean full blown sobbing, for both of you, for two very different reasons. 

What’s going on for you?

In terms of parenting, there are so many factors that influence our reactions to situations. However they all come down to a few simple end points. Our underlying beliefs about the world – created by our own childhood and our family’s generational experiences and beliefs. Often when we have our buttons pushed it is often not about what is actually happening in the present. It’s rather more about the meaning that we are giving the current event, what we are making it mean about us as a parent and them as our child. Having true understanding of this enables you to have conscious conversations with your tween and teen rather than reactive interactions (about things that run a lot deeper than a tidy bedroom). 

For example, as a young child you may have created the belief that you are not seen or heard, or that it is psychologically unsafe to be seen or heard. So when you are feeling overwhelmed with your teen because they are not listening to you, whether it is about switching a light off or tidying a bedroom, you will process your tween or teens response of in a minute as you being unseen or heard. (Yes we understand that parents are often unseen or heard and no it doesn’t have to be like this at all, honest!). This results in a reaction from you that is often not calm or conscious and just about the lightswitch, or bedroom etc and it becomes about you not feeling heard and seen, resulting in more conflict and tension and more not being heard. 

What’s going on for them?

For our tweens and teens it’s a lot about brain development, the prefrontal cortex of the brain is responsible for a range of things. These include decision making (analysis of potential outcomes, deciding what is right or wrong, processing conflicting thoughts and feelings) and regulating or moderating social behaviour. While we all have this lobe in the brain, it actually can take up until the age of 30 to mature completely. This means that you will likely have a fully fledged normal processing adult by the time they are 30! (Yay)

What’s happening in there?

While your young person is maturing their prefrontal cortex they are still communicating and trying to make sense of the world. But how are they doing it?  They are using two other parts of the brain. The Amygdala and Hippocampus. These parts of the brain are in charge of emotions (think anger, jealously, fear, grief etc.), stress regulation and memory. These parts of the brain are why you remember your teenage years as full of intense emotions. I know you still remember and cringe at that embarrassing moment in the school 30 years ago.

Every interaction you have with your young person involves you speaking and listening from your prefrontal cortex with your developed capacity to use judgement and manage difficult emotions (on a good day, when you are not triggered by your underlying beliefs)). Every interaction your young person has involves them speaking (and maybe listening) from their amygdala and hippocampus with a lot of emotion, fear and stress. Adults read, process and respond to other peoples emotions with the analytical parts of their brains. Young people read, process and respond to other peoples emotions with the parts of their brain which are already full to the top with their own emotions. Because of this teenagers can easily misinterpret other peoples emotions as threatening to them.

Instead of seeing their mum or dad as being worried about them, they can see it as their mum or dad being angry at them. This misinterpretation which is completely physiological in basis can kick off the mother of all fights on a Friday night after a long week at work.

What does it feel like to be a teenager?

I don’t believe we can actually remember it fully as our brain has protected us a little bit by making the memory fuzzy. But next time you are late for an important meeting and your new boss is expecting you to bring a presentation that is now missing (that you would have sworn was on your desk), and you have gone to try and print it again but can’t find it on your computer anywhere…. That panic you feel is your amygdala starting to kick in. That is the feeling your young person is experiencing when they blow up due to what you see and consider as a simple misunderstanding.

For you we suggest taking the time to really understand your underlying beliefs, your core drivers in parenting and in work, in relationships and all aspects of your life. The end result will be a greater awareness of yourself so that you can parent from a place of calm, clarity and conscious choice. We can help you uncover this in our 1:1 mentoring program where you will begin to build your awareness from the first session. 

For your tween or teen here are four steps to take with as little words as possible;


  1. Remain calm. If you are also starting to get hot under the collar buy yourself some time. Say: “I love you, I just need a minute I will be back”. Leave the situation (hopefully nobody will follow you). When there take a minute, take a breath, remind yourself what the end game is here. Don’t leave the toilet until you are feeling calmer and in control emotionally.  
  1. Acknowledge their emotions first e.g. ‘Am I right that you are upset and angry because of xyz?’
  1. Help them think about what you might be feeling e.g. ‘I think you think I am angry at you. I am not, I’m scared. I’m scared that … (fill the gap)…might happen’.
  1. Think of a plan together (if possible and it’s not always possible) to respect everyone’s feelings e.g. ‘I am scared about you going to the movies in the city at 9:30 at night. You’re angry about me having hesitation about this. How can we make this work for both of us?’

What comes next?

At this point one of two things will likely happen. Your child will be able to be in a still highly sensitive way when trying to communicate with you. Or they will shut you down and say something like ‘what’s the point you always say no’. When/if this does happen don’t engage any further beyond being present. Instead sit in calm silence (as anything you say will only provide more fuel to the fire). If they come up with a suggestion that is very unreasonable, smile and say “try again”.

If they are not open to negotiation at this time you can tell them a few things. You can say “we can think about this on our own and talk about it some more later”. More than likely they will approach you once the fire has calmed in their brain and you can try again. Self care is so important when doing regular negotiations with your child. Knowing what makes you tick is also key to successful self care too. 

Good luck.. we’re cheering you all on! If you need help communicating with teens and tweens please check out our online courses.

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