ParentTip: Bearing Witness to Your Teen’s Struggles

Photo by Marta Boixo on Unsplash

Photo by Marta Boixo on Unsplash

One of the things parents have been telling me lately is that it’s hard to watch their teen go through so much pain.

From a logical place, we may understand that it’s painful to get left out or put down by “friends”. We can recall that things felt more intense when we were teens ourselves. Or, we may know all the facts about the developmental goals of being a teenager, yet we can’t separate that from the wisdom of being on the other side of the teen years.

Add all of that to the primal pull of wanting to protect your baby and I can totally get how hard it would be to watch your teen suffer.

So, if you are struggling with this here are a couple of thoughts and resources for you.

First, if you feel like teen-hood is so foreign to you and you would like to deepen your understanding of the experience of being a teen in the current era, I highly recommend, Untangled by Lisa Damour, Ph.D.

In this book, Lisa provides some excellent insight into the developmental social milestones, what’s going on a biological level as well as a sociological level (ahem, the influence of the digital landscape, etc.) She is also so compassionate to parents and teens and does an excellent job reframing some of the more challenging aspects of teenhood in a more loving manner. The book’s emphasis is on teen girls but much of the book could apply to tweens and teens of all genders.

Second, my expertise is in trauma work and one of the important things about bearing witness to others excruciating pain is to stay internally organized in the process. Essentially, this means to keep yourself cool as a cucumber and present to your teen while they are going through the emotional upheavals. The key is to stay connected without getting all upset yourself or trying to fix the situation or distract them from the situation at hand. Your capacity to be in the experience with them and stay calm role models to them how to do that. It’s subtle, but definitely gets internalized.

If you feel like you can’t connect with their feelings one totally random idea for you might be to create a playlist of music that lit your soul on fire when you were a teen or find an object that reminds you of some emotional aspect of your own teen years. The goal is not to find something that will completely bowl you over but more so something that will simply remind you that you once had similar intense feelings of your own at that age.

Third, staying internally organized may be a challenge. I get it. And for that, I highly recommend the book, Constructive Wallowing by Tina Gilbertson.

This book is all about how to ride the wave of emotions by leaning into them. The backbone to this whole idea is that emotions often get stronger when we neglect them and they often pass more quickly if we would simply let ourselves have them.

One thing that often comes up here in my work with adults and teens is this fear that if I allow this emotion to come to the surface then it’s going to take me over completely. There’s fear that the emotion won’t stop. Tina addresses this as well in her book and offers a lot of ideas about how we can create contained experiences to allow the emotions to flow but in a time or situation limited manner. Some examples include reading a sad book if you’re sad or listening to Rah! Rah! girl power music if you are feeling angry at “the Man” and the like. The idea here is to give yourself permission to feel all the feels during that span of time so you can put it aside and do all the normal, daily stuff we all gotta do.

And, of course, if you ever want any help with this feel free to reach out to us or your therapist if you have one.