Think that the teenager in your life is being emotional and ridiculous?
Let’s look at some causes of their stress — and the best strategy you can use to help them.
Don’t laugh, but it is actually pretty hard to be a teenager these days.
And I’m telling you this so that maybe you’ll feel less alone with the current teenage communication situation within your household. Or classroom. Or youth group. Or whatever you’re seeing in the checkout lines.
You get the idea.
I’m coming to you as a parent of three teenage boys. (Pray for my refrigerator, please.) I’m also a high school teacher and a Scout leader. My days are comprised of pretty much non-stop contact with teenagers.
And so many of those teenagers impress me every day. Every. Damn. Day.
Here’s a glimpse of what they’re dealing with — and what many of the adults in their lives have never had to face as intensely.
Without a doubt, the presence of social media can bring some negative nonsense. Social media platforms churn out opinions, speculation, and gossip. They can also contribute, paradoxically, to feelings of social isolation.
And it is relentless.
In contrast, when I was a girl during the dinosaur era, I was not pretty or popular. I had a horrendous mullet haircut, glasses, braces, acne and a reputation for being “too smart.”
I was teased at school, of course. And the negativity would trail beyond that onto the yellow limo…aka the bus…and the streets of my neighborhood as I walked home. Those days in the teenage shark tank were rough.
But I could at least step away from all of it when I got home. I closed the door of my room, laid on my bed, and hung out with my friends, ie., the characters in whatever book I was reading at the moment.
I was able to get away from it all, unlike our kids today. I was able to take a mental break from toxic teenage crap.
I never had to deal with the levels of PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, that our kids are facing today.
Think I’m wrong? Okay, let’s talk about school shootings then.
Did you have to deal with the very real fear that someone might come into your school and try to kill you? No? So in what ways were you worried about your safety back then? Did that annual earthquake drill shake you up? (Heh.)
The reality in our schools today is that kids are being pushed to prepare for an armed intruder. They are going through training that includes how to use your belt to prevent a door from being opened. How to barricade a door. How to evacuate the building and meet in the designated “safe zone.” How to disarm a shooter by throwing a chair at him. (Sorry, guys, it’s almost always a “him.” And a white one at that.)
Our teenagers are googling crazy stuff like, “How to prevent yourself from sneezing” because they know an ill-timed sneeze would immediately reveal their hiding spot in the classroom closet.
Think about that. A single sneeze could result in multiple deaths.
It’s no wonder teenagers appear to be ridiculous and unreasonable sometimes. They’re carrying burdens we could have never imagined. This is tremendous pressure and it can create enormous anxiety for our kids.
So let’s look at how we can help them.
SEL (Social Emotional Learning)
The premise behind SEL is how to help others with strategies for recognizing and self-regulating their emotions.
Maybe this sounds like esoteric psycho-babble, but it’s not. We have been helping our children to self-reflect and manage their emotions from an early age.
Take the preschooler who is “the biter” in her class. Sure, the adults in the room are initially focused on reducing the violence of the biting incident in the moment. But let’s look at how a conversation might go with the child after the incident.
“Why did you bite her? What were you feeling at that moment? What had happened beforehand that caused you to react by biting? What can you do next time to try to stop yourself from biting other kids?”
That’s what SEL for children looks like. And we need to do it with our teenagers too. They are still children, albeit in big bodies, and they are coping with (probably undiagnosed) post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and relentless negativity on social media.
Check out this “Wheel of Emotions” that can be utilized by parents, educators, or anyone that has a struggling teenager in their lives.
So what does SEL look like in my kitchen?
With my own teenagers at home, I never show them this wheel. Instead, it is more a resource for me when I know something is up and I’m trying to help them identify how they’re feeling.
- “Hey, I noticed that you seem tired. Are you sleeping okay?”
- mumbled response
- “Sometimes when I’m super tired, I try to figure out what is keeping me awake at night.”
- Mumbled response (We’re moving into the “stop bugging me, Mom” zone here.)
- At this point, I always step away and break eye contact. I might start wiping the counter and I keep talking.
“Sometimes it’s good to put a name to what I’m feeling. So if I’m feeling scared about something, I’ll try to figure out if I’m feeling overwhelmed by it. Or maybe I’m scared that I’m not up to the task and that other people will do better than me. Either way, I find that trying to find a name for my emotions can calm my brain down a bit and then I am able to sleep better.”
And then I walk away.
With my own teenagers, I find that these difficult conversations go better if they’re brief and just involve planting some little seeds for them to think about later. Whatever is causing the sleeplessness will probably come up again and then we’ll explore their feelings a bit more.
What does SEL look like when I’m working with my students?
I work at an alternative high school where every student is struggling with PTSD and issues related to poverty, parental neglect, addiction, and peer issues.
Even though I am “only” a Spanish teacher, I start every lesson with 3–4 minutes of SEL. When the students come in, I might have the Wheel of Emotion on the screen with the question “How are you feeling today?” and a QR code that will take them to a quick Google Form in which they can write about how they’re feeling and what they’re trying to do to cope with getting through the day.
Or I’ll open class by talking about a current issue that might be on their minds. For a lot of my students, violence within the community is a huge stressor. Plus, many of our students are undocumented immigrants and they are terrified of the ICE raids that have been occurring in our area. We talk about their anxiety when coming to school and strategies that they can use to keep that anxiety for escalating even further.
I think of using SEL as a chance for these teenagers to quiet their minds a bit before we get into the actual lesson for the day. It is time well spent.
And, for that matter I think this type of mindfulness to our own social-emotional states could be beneficial for all of us. I would love to hear some strategies that you use to help teenagers with regulating their emotions.
(Want to learn more about SEL? This resource from Chicago’s CASEL Collaborative is excellent. https://casel.org/core-competencies/)
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