Bigger Kids

Understanding teen emotions

Young teens need their parents' support to handle new, intense emotions

By Teresa Pitman
Understanding teen emotions

The sad music starts. Pictures of hopeful puppies, their faces pressed against the cages, flash across the screen. One lonely white puppy stares glumly as the other pups are carried away by their new families. Then, finally, the cage door opens, and the puppy wriggles with joy as he’s finally chosen. It’s another commercial encouraging people to adopt abandoned pets, and as the tears start to flow (I’m a sucker for sad puppies), I reach for the box of tissues.

Surprisingly, so does my then 12-year-old son, Jeremy. He looks at me with tear-filled eyes and hisses: “Don’t tell my brothers!”

I didn’t. It probably wouldn’t matter if I had, though, since his brothers (and his sister) also went through a stage when they could easily be moved to tears by touching or sad movies or stories, or by upsetting experiences.

Why do many kids, even those who seemed in control of their emotions when they were younger, find their feelings overtake them at times once they hit the teen years?

Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a professor of educational psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, says this seems to be a common aspect of maturing. “There’s research to show that children do have more negative emotions like sadness or anxiety at this age. Part of it may be that they are better able to put themselves in another person’s shoes. If they see a dog suffering, for instance, or children hurt in an earthquake, they can vividly imagine what it would be like if that happened to them, and it hits them emotionally.”

If parents take some time to reflect on what their children are experiencing at this age, they won’t be surprised that their child’s emotions tend to be very close to the surface, says Christina Rinaldi, a professor of psychology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. “They are going through physical changes, biological changes, changes in school routines and expectations, and social changes,” she points out. “The changes can be exciting, but they can also be unnerving and scary. That can be overwhelming.” Both boys and girls are affected by fluctuating hormones, but girls are often experiencing irregular periods and can be very emotional in the days leading up to the arrival of their period.

While tears may be normal and even beneficial — Rinaldi explains that it is not good for anyone to keep feelings bottled up all the time — they can be embarrassing for teens and make parents feel uncomfortable and often helpless.

“Parents can deal with a two- or three-year-old who is crying, but not a teenager. We want to make it stop, make it go away, but sometimes they just need to cry,” says Schonert-Reichl.

As a parent, your reaction is important. Rinaldi adds that often parents want to quickly intervene, but that’s rarely the best approach. “Let your teen go through the process of experiencing the emotion and deciding how to handle it. Be supportive and be there for her, help if she asks for it, but don’t try to take over and solve the problem. Sometimes you need to step back and give your child a little space to be sad. Other times she needs a hug or someone to listen.”

Probably the least helpful approach, Rinaldi says, is to tell the child, “You shouldn’t feel this way” or “Buck up and stop crying.” This response is most likely when the tearful teenager is a boy, Schonert-Reichl says. “Parents tend to be more negative about emotional reactions in boys, and the same is true of a boy’s peer group. They need you not to make a big deal about it, but just accept that they are feeling upset. You communicate as much by what you don’t say as by what you do say.”

As Rinaldi points out, nobody wants to hear “You’ll get over it” — at least not when they’re in the middle of an intense emotional moment — even though it’s the truth. You can convey that message in a different way, though, by sharing your own experiences, and supporting your child as she finds her own emotional balance.

Read on: Should I be concerned about my teen's tears?
Should I be concerned about my teen’s tears?

Some emotional or tearful times are not unusual at this age, says Schonert-Reichl. But this is also an age when depression becomes more common, so it’s important to be aware of signs that could indicate problems. If your child is not just occasionally sad, but also shows these other signs, consider seeing a physician to be sure all is well:

• crying frequently or for long periods of time
• not sleeping well, or sleeping longer hours than normal
• not eating well, or eating constantly
• not socializing, avoiding friends, withdrawing from activities usually enjoyed
• being uncharacteristically irritable and negative

This article was originally published on Jun 07, 2010

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