Teenagers, Limit Setting, Emotions and Moods

Over-reaction to limit setting can occur in the context of any event that produces any emotion. Your teen will likely be sadder than usual when there is a frustration with a relationship. S/he will be more hurt than usual when there is personal injury involved, again, usually relative to peer interaction. Pick a feeling and pick a situation and put on your seat belt. The issue may be curfew, whether or not to have a cell phone, or attending a party with older teenagers. Your task as a parent is to set appropriate limits–do your research and
figure out what is “appropriate”–despite the turbulence to follow.
Why? Because teenagers actually need those limits. It’s paradoxical. They feel safer and know that you really love them when you say “No” to something they are not ready for. Paradoxically, their anxiety actually goes down because they know in what areas and in what territory they are safe; also when to protest, but more importantly, when not to. On the surface, teens will like you less, but at deeper levels, they will respect you more, and later be able to return your love with conviction and certainty. Unless there is some underlying pathology, each phase will pass as skirmishes resolve.
How do emotions and moods manifest? Usually with noise. What are the kinds of behaviors to expect? Many teens will, on purpose, yell or otherwise act out their feelings by stomping off, grimacing, slamming doors or locking themselves in their rooms (until hungry). These are the normal variants of teenager moods. Back talking, making funny hand gestures are borderline “OK” behaviors, depending largely on the parent’s temperaments. Breaking things, hurting self or others, withdrawing for extended periods of time, running away, leaving without permission, not
coming home at night, indulging in sex, drugs or alcohol are “Not OK.” Remember The Dance? (See previous articles by this author.) When the latter maladaptive behaviors show up, we no longer have a waltz-we have a boogie woogie.
As with younger children, your challenge is to pick the behaviors to change. What behaviors should be on the “radar screen?” How many do you work on and which ones should come first? One hint, if you pick the wrong behavior or group of behaviors, you will get change but the change will not “stick.” The old behaviors will come back sooner than you want. This tells you that something else might be the problem or that your focus is too superficial. Change your focus and apply the techniques to a different set of problems or level of behavior, e.g., need or mood, and see if that produces more positive results. For example,
with teenagers, you first have to get them to really listen to you. Then, you talk about issues. Maybe they don’t clean their rooms. They could suffer from lack of motivation, especially for school projects. Not giving you respect can be troublesome. Acting bigger than their britches is a complaint I used to hear a lot; now we just call it defiance, oppositional or other names. But if addressing any of these problems “takes” for only a short while, consider looking deeper.
Most of the examples mentioned above could be symptoms of normal mood variations. In that case, parents ought to consider talking frankly about teenager moods-yes, with the teenager. Parents who verbalize their observations with their teens, in this case feeding back something about their own experiences with mood or observations about their teen’s mood, help teens to more quickly come to terms with themselves. Teenagers don’t always like hearing negative things about themselves, but then, who does? And, remember, your teenager is not a young child anymore, so consider the level of your approach. It has to be exactly at the teen’s level of maturity and understanding–no more, no less. “Coming in” at just the right depth is crucial and presages greater success. And, when
communicating, consider your attitude. Presenting “information” to your teen as if your version is the truth and his or hers is not is asking for rebellion, even if you are right. The trick is to ascertain the real issues, and approach them at just the right level and tone. It might also help to teach your teenager a vocabulary of his or her feelings. In the literature, there are eight major feelings that we humans have. I think there is a ninth, so in my office, there are nine major feelings. Have your teen look up the nine and find as many synonyms as possible for each. Then, both you and your teenager start using these feeling words or their synonyms in assertiveness sentences. (BTW, I have compiled these ninefeeling words in the back of my ebook, “The Five Steps of Assertiveness.” I also had fifth graders look up these and their synonyms, and the synonyms of the synonyms on thesaurus.com. I now have nearly eight hundred synonyms for the nine major human feeling words, all available for assertive use by both teen and parent, alike.

-Dr. Griggs
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