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.

A Hard Hit


This post goes out to the parents of littles, but take note that much of what you read can easily be adapted to fit your own needs or the needs of an older child. Do not underestimate the importance of self-care and self-compassion during a hard time. Even if you have not had a “direct hit” by Hurricane Harvey (i.e. your house may not have flooded, you didn’t have to evacuate, you only had a power outage), seeing friends and family suffer, even seeing strangers suffer, can be downright difficult and exhausting. There’s so much information to digest about how to help, what to do and what not to do that it can be overwhelming. There’s enough information download and processing happening, so let’s stick to some really important fundamentals. Please feel free to pass this along, as our connection with one another is more important than ever!

When something scary and unreal hits, like what Texas has experienced with Hurricane Harvey, our children need support in making some sense of it. Parents and adults can help children in adapting healthy coping strategies. Here are some simple first steps:

1. Attunement: Time is precious right now. There may be a lot going on with you and around you. As a parent, taking some time to connect with your child will have many positive effects on them and on you. This might be the time when you actually need to schedule, yes schedule, special time with your child. Go ahead and do it - carve out about 10 minutes for play time, extra cuddles, fun reading and good ‘ole fashioned one on one time. Perhaps make this a part of your new routine before bed, but slipping it in between phone calls is fine too. Just make sure that you have given yourself a chance to transition to a place of calm and focus before engaging with your child. Providing special connection time for your child during chaos will remind them of the fact that they are loved and safe. It will also give them an opportunity to be just as they need to be - a child without worry and fear.

2. Response: This might be a time when you, as a parent or caregiver, get a lot of questions. “Where will we sleep tonight?” “Why did this happen?” “When can I go back home?” “Why did my friend have to leave her house?” My go-to suggestion for parents overwhelmed by questions and feeling like they need to answer them all and answer them well is this: Pause and Breathe. Make space for you to clear out anxiety, stress and worry. Your child will not think twice if you don’t immediately answer their questions. Next step is to think: Is this an answer now or answer later question? If it is an answer now question, keep your response simple and age appropriate. The information you give doesn’t need to have a lot of detail. You can give a little bit at a time and check to see if that answers your child’s question. If you think this could be an answer later question, that’s okay too. Generally, those are for the real tough ones or when we don’t know what to say at all. Give the question the space it deserves. Respond with, “Wow, that’s a really good question. Mommy needs to think about that one. I’m not sure right now. I’m going to think about it and then answer you later.” Then, actually do think about it and answer it later. You can also ask your child what they think and how they feel about it.

3. Feelings: There are a lot of them right now. And they might not all make sense or seem totally logical. For instance, the feeling of anxiety may come up but bring into question 'why' because your family maybe hasn’t been directly affected or experienced significant hardship. Any feeling is fine right now. If you notice some behaviors or signs from your child that seem unusual to you, do you best to help them put words to their emotions. As Dan Siegel, MD, says, “Name it to Tame it.” It really does help to say the feeling or feelings out loud in order for them to be soothed and attended to. As a therapist, I love to suggest the following phrase, “I wonder if…” “I wonder if you are feeling scared. There are some scary things happening right now.” “I wonder if you are feeling tired right now. I see that you are rubbing your eyes.” “I wonder if you might be feeling lonely. It’s been a few days since you were able to play with your friends.”

Remember, in a time of crisis, much of how we cope is based on the need to survive. If you are seeing some concerning behavior in your child, DO reach out to a mental health provider to learn more about how to best address what you see and ensure that your child is being well taken care of during this time. The first priorities are providing safety, nourishment, shelter and love.



LifeTip: Constellations of Adaptive Responses


When we experience a stressful or traumatic event our brains activate different response systems.  These are commonly referred to as adaptive responses because they help us adapt, stay safe and survive potentially threatening and/or sudden changes in our environment.

Some adaptive responses are entirely physiological and are a result of the body’s neurophysiological response to stress, threats, and/or danger.  These responses can include the fight, flight, and freeze responses, which are activated by the most primitive part of our brain, the limbic system, and at a most basic level, prepare our bodies to fight, run away or hide (freeze) in the face of danger.  

Additional physiological responses to stress include: panic attacks, hypervigilance, sleep disturbance, and the like.  Even though we are all humans, we don’t always all respond the same way to the same kinds of experiences.  For example, some of us can tolerate extreme sports and roller coasters, while others would find that too physiologically overwhelming.  The same is true in the face of traumatic events.

On the other hand, some adaptive responses manifest themselves more in the emotional, cognitive and behavioral realm.  Some examples of this include being angry, intrusive thoughts, using humor, throwing ourselves into advocacy work to prevent the traumas that happened to us from happening to another, or to avoid dealing with our own trauma history.  These examples are just the tip of the iceberg, really.  There are so many kinds of responses and each person has their own unique constellation of responses in order to get through life.

While it may be hard to understand sometimes, all of these responses are ultimately there to help us survive a given moment or experience.  It’s just a matter of teasing out whether or not they are indeed still helpful in our stimuli-laden, busy, modern lives.  Sometimes too, we find that strategies that worked in the past no longer work in the present and in fact, have become a source of trouble, or maladaptive.  When this happens it can feel like life is playing a big prank on us.

Many adaptive responses are involuntary, however we are also capable of utilizing new strategies, voluntarily, as we learn and grow.  Our work in therapy is centered on promoting self-discovery of the physiological and psychological adaptive responses.  What’s serving you?  What’s not?  What is your body, mind, heart, or spirit needing from you in order to get back in the driver’s seat of your life?  This is the work to be done.  And, this is what we are here to help with.


LifeTip: The Continuum of Stress & Trauma


Image © Natalia Amari

Sometimes the idea that a particular life event is a trauma can feel scary and overwhelming. The experience of labeling a specific event as traumatic or not is, in essence, subjective.

For many individuals, it can be powerful and relieving to name an event or series of events as traumatic. Others may consider a similar event a stressor, and it may be equally beneficial to refer to it as such. Even benign experiences, like taking a walk or eating candy, can be experienced as traumatic due to a history of trauma. Of course, it is also important to note that some events may not cause any stress at all.

Given how subjective these experiences can be, how on earth do we identify a trauma or a stressor?

After we experience an event we perceive it through many different filters, such as:

  • Human Physiological Response (heart beats fast, palms sweat, muscles tense…)
  • Life Circumstance (living alone, partnered, un/under/employed, in school…)
  • Temperament (personality, general outlook/approach to life…)
  • Cultural Norms (attitudes, expectations, traditions, rituals…)
  • Societal Response (news media, social media, local community, school, work…)
  • Resiliency & Vulnerability Factors (the presence or absence of diverse skills to handle adversity, such as social capital, self-efficacy, socioeconomic status…)
  • Prior Life Experiences (history of privilege, oppression, traumas…)

There may be many more filters than this, but these are a few notable ones.

After we perceive the event through these filters, we interpret the information on the continuum of stress and trauma as:

  • Eustress (the good stress that motivates you to work on that paper to turn it in on time!)
  • Distress (you know, when stuff breaks down and throws your day off course)
  • Acute Traumatic Response (an immediate reaction to the experience)
  • Chronic Traumatic Response (an ongoing sense of feeling traumatized by the experience)
  • Delayed Traumatic Response (when the impact remains dormant until something later in life that draws up the prior experience)

Viewing stress and trauma on a shared continuum creates a more open dialogue. One where the individual labels the experience on a continuum based on their own beliefs, values, feelings, and experiences. This continuum then helps to foster more freedom, choice and empowerment. And with this, comes more avenues for healing.


recovering from natural disaster

Recently we've talked about the effects of national events on tweens, and how parents can help by strengthening their adolescent's sense of community. With the tornadoes surrounding Central Texas and the devastation to our neighbors in Oklahoma, where many Texans have loved ones, it may be important to revisit some of the tools on how to talk with your kids about tragedy.

Natural disasters such as floods, tornadoes, forest fires, hurricanes and earthquakes can often occur suddenly and with little warning or preparation time. Here in Central Texas we regularly experience many of these events, and having regular conversations with your tween about safety and recovery can be critical. 

The National Association of School Psychologists has a great list of resources for parents and teachers on how to help children (and tweens) cope with natural disaster. The Red Cross has issued a statement on the tornado in Moore, OK and is accepting $10 donations by texting REDCROSS to 90999 to help fund disaster relief. 

Help your tween spot the warning signs of overwhelm, such as irritability, difficulty sleeping, changing appetite and a dip in school performance. Remember that signs of stress are normal following a natural disaster, and limit media exposure to prevent secondary trauma, which can occur following indirect exposure to traumatic events

When talking with your tween about this and other natural disasters, remember the keys to resilience: Self-care, Connection, Recovery and Spirit. Help them learn ways to cope with natural disasters near and far by taking good care of themselves, reaching out to those in need, building community, taking time to recharge, and becoming empowered through action. 

Building community

Recently, GirlTalk Therapy posted a GirlTip about the importance of developing a sense of community for our tweens and teens. Since the recent National tragedies in Boston and West, Texas, we’ve been thinking more about this topic and feel it’s time to re-visit it in a new light.

Our youth are powerful motivators for positive change and action. If there is any time for them to be involved in their community, it is now! The devastation of last week’s events have also brought up memories of past struggles our local, national, and global community have faced in its history. We believe we have the opportunity to help each other through this time and heal from the past by participating in outreach and volunteering activities that support community and build relationships.

We mentioned in our last post that community can often be separated by the many tools and devices that run our lives - facebook, twitter, texting, and more. However,  these methods of communication can also be the spark that ignites community gathering. If you take some time to look at recent internet activity, you will see ways that our community has united itself to help others and spread the word of positivity. It’s time to get yourself and your teen involved in our current events. Explore some of the ideas below with your adolescent to help them build a caring community: 





how to talk about tragedy

We here at GirlTalk Therapy are deeply saddened at the loss of so many young lives this past week in Newtown, and our hearts go out to those who have lost a loved one and those who are struggling to make sense of the senseless. You may find that your adolescent has questions that are hard to answer, or perhaps she seems more anxious going to school. Some teens may have nightmares, or seem a bit more moody, or just want a little extra TLC. Whether or not your teen comes to you to talk about this event, it's important to address it in a way that provides reassurance of safety, compassion for the range of emotions your child may experience, and a willingness to talk about some really difficult things. Here are some ways you can help your child process the events of the past week and move toward healing:

  • Be on the lookout for some signs of distress, like being extra tired in the morning, a change in appetite, difficulty concentrating, complaints of stomach upset or a reluctance to go to school. 
  • Limit media exposure. Television news is full of sensationalist and graphic accounts of the shooting, and this type of media can escalate anxiety in teens and adults alike.
  • Check in with your tween about what they're feeling and what they've heard. Social media makes the exchange of information rapid & can distort truths. It's important to keep a dialogue going with your teen as we learn more about what happened. Then stick to the basic facts.
  • Reassure your tween of her safety. It's normal to feel vulnerable after a traumatic event. Walk her through the protections in place at her school, and come up with a game plan together of what she can do if she feels scared or unsafe.
  • Keep to your regular routine. Parents have been deeply shaken by this event, and the urge to keep your child home and limit activities is high. Try to keep her to her regular routine and encourage her to stay engaged in school and extracurriculars.
  • Be willing to share your own feelings and uncertainty, within reason. Adolescents benefit from parents modeling how to manage a range of emotions, with the key word being "manage." If you're feeling overwhelmed and distraught, take time to care for yourself before attempting these difficult conversations with your teen. And remember that you don't have to have all the answers. What teens need is a safe space to feel understood, not a parent who can "fix" everything. 
  • If you feel that your adolescent continues to experience distress, consider reaching out to a mental health professional, particularly if your teen or family has experienced any form of trauma. 

While we begin to heal, let us all remember to be kind and compassionate with each other and with the young people in our lives. Together we can become stronger.