Do you find yourself walking on eggshells lately with your tween or teen? Are you scared to poke the bear (i.e., your child) for fear of the repercussions? You aren’t alone.
Although navigating toddler tantrums was tough, there’s nothing quite like managing the delicate and unpredictable emotions of those tween and teen years (somewhere between ages 9 and 19—or older!).
It seems the bigger your kids get, the bigger their problems (and emotions) become. And for the most part, the physical and emotional reactions they have are totally normal (even when it may not feel like they are in the moment).
What do “normal” tween and teen meltdowns look like?
People (at any age) going through meltdowns may physically experience fast breathing, muscle tension resulting in clenched fists or jaw or tensed up feelings in the stomach. The emotional aspects include feelings of helplessness, frustration, anger, fear and an acute surge of anxiety. People may also experience a fight or flight type response.
As a parent or caregiver, you may begin to notice your tween or teen is more disrespectful, moody and even short-tempered. They may be more opinionated, easily frustrated and less compliant.
The good news with meltdowns is that with age comes wisdom, self-awareness and more resources to draw from to temper the tantrum flames.
“Meltdowns typically get less frequent with age due to psychological and social development and better impulse control with the maturing brain,” said Srinivas Dannaram, MD, a psychiatrist at Banner Thunderbird Medical Center in Glendale, AZ. “Meltdowns do become concerning, however, when they become more frequent, prolonged and result in physical destruction or expressed in socially unacceptable ways.”
Why all the angst or emo-type attitude?
Say goodbye to your well-mannered, well-behaved child and hello to the irrational hormone monster. Not only is their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for reasoning, planning and decision-making, not fully developed yet, but teens are also experiencing major hormonal changes as their bodies prepare them for adulthood.
Adding to that, your teen may also be pushing boundaries—seeking more autonomy and wanting more input in decision-making. If you’re constantly reminding them to do something or offering up unsolicited advice, you may get a sigh, an eyeroll or an unexpected meltdown.
So, what’s a parent to do?
You love your child, but this behavior just isn’t acceptable. Do you yell back? Do you walk away? Do you ground them?
“Unfortunately, these approaches take away the supportive aspect, delay the dialogue process and eliminate the opportunity to coach and may not have positive role model effects,” Dr. Dannaram said. “They can also fuel further frustration, increasing the intensity, duration and frequency of episodes.”
Instead of throwing the book at them or yelling back, Dr. Dannaram shares tips to help navigate heavy teen emotions and help them build emotional resiliency.
5 tips for managing teenage meltdowns
Start with controlled breathing and muscle relaxation
In the heat of the moment, meltdowns affect physical and emotional aspects—one feeding the other. Thoughts and emotions trigger a meltdown, but it’s the biological and physiological changes that feed the flames and maintain the outburst. One way to get the meltdown under control is tackling the physical aspects.
“At the peak of a breakdown, guide your child to control their physical distress through controlled breathing and muscle relaxation rather than trying to address the emotional aspects,” Dr. Dannaram said. “Acknowledge they are in distress and then guide them to help them get control. This can help relax tense muscles, lower heart rate and help them regain executive functions.
“But the most important aspect is to stay with your adolescent to support and guide them through it, and not walk away from the situation,” he added.
You can also talk to your child, when they are calm of course, about other ways they can calm themselves when they feel a meltdown coming on or are in the middle of one. Maybe it’s listening to a certain song, humming a certain tune, playing with a certain fidget toy or going for a walk. Put their autonomy-wishing urges to work!
Remember, it’s not about you … it’s more about themselves
If you haven’t already, you’ll need to grow some tough skin or buy some imaginary body armor for your heart to get through the teenage tantrums. Just remember, your tween or teen isn’t really angry at you—the “I hate you” or “you don’t love me” zingers aren’t intended to resonate with you. Chances are, they’re hoping you’ll be more forgiving because they know they can’t pull these stunts elsewhere (at school or with other adults). While not appropriate responses, you can take some comfort knowing your child trusts you enough to show their most unpleasant side.
Model a calm response
As difficult as it may be to maintain your cool while your teen is throwing a fit, it’s important to model an appropriate response. Allow them to see how you work through it. If you happen to lose your cool, that’s okay. Find a way to apologize and talk through with them why you also have to work on appropriate responses sometimes.
Provide an empathetic ear and validate their feelings
As much as you possibly can, listen to your teen and then validate their feelings. This includes moments where they don’t have amped up emotions. You don’t have to agree with what they are saying or even understand, but lending an empathetic ear is crucial. Make sure they know that being angry and getting upset is okay. What’s not okay is flying off the rails, saying hurtful things or even throwing things. Use this as an opportunity to talk about appropriate and respectful ways to handle and manage the big emotions they are having.
“Empathetic listening with time to process the emotions and situation can open up a two-way conversation and shorten the length of meltdowns,” Dr. Dannaram said. “Listening and engaging them in problem solving will give them control of the situation. And over time, this will help reduce the frequency of episodes as they will unconsciously start using these techniques to process complex problems.”
Having this open line of positive communication will foster bonding and invite your teen to initiate conversations about challenging situations in the future.
Look for warning signs and seek help
Most children and adolescents will grow out of the temper tantrums as they learn to handle their emotions and frustrations in more constructive and healthy ways. However, if the tantrums intensify or there are threats of self-harm or harming of others, there could be underlying issues that require the assistance of a licensed behavioral health specialist.
“When episodes are prolonged, frequent, intense and communication efforts aren’t fetching any results, a professional can help rule out emotional and communication issues that may be triggering meltdowns,” Dr. Dannaram said. “Certain conditions like disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, depression and anxiety sensitize adolescents to negative comments and triggers which can lead to frequent and prolonged meltdowns.”
How to find help
You can find a Banner Behavioral Health specialist at bannerhealth.com.
If your child is having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, contact the National Childhelp Hotline 1-800-422-4453 or dial 988 for The Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline).
If you’re a teen who needs help, you can text or call the Teen Lifeline at 1-800-248-TEEN (8336).