Here is June’s installment of “Ask Shelby” from Chester County’s own Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Shelby Riley.
My teen daughter seems to be going through a tough time. I think she is dealing with friendship issues, and I’m not sure she’s handling all of this in the best way. I know that I can’t protect her from everything, but as her mom I still want to be able to help her through it. Any ideas?
Absolutely. Many of us at SR&A work with teens. I am going to turn your question over to my associate, Rebecca Freking, LMFT, who will be leading a group for teens in the fall.
I’m sorry to hear that your daughter is having a hard time. Although mood swings and relationship issues are normal developmental challenges during the teen years, that doesn’t make them any easier.
I know it is hard to see your daughter struggle, but I think it’s important for parents to know that sometimes even negative emotions serve an important function. Anger can motivate us to stand up for ourselves; anxiety can help us to study in advance; sadness can slow us down and help us examine what in our life might need to change. So, although it’s hard to see your daughter struggle, sometimes she needs to experience negative emotions rather than try to fix them.
Having said that, we all know that the teenage years can be an emotional rollercoaster, and this can lead to unhealthy or unhelpful ways of dealing with emotions. Teenagers sometimes mistake feelings for facts. For example, they might think, “I feel like no one likes me,” and assume it’s true, ignoring other facts, such as the people at school who do talk to them, or the positive feedback they get from others. Additionally, teenagers (like all of us) sometimes act on their emotions in ways that make the emotion worse. For example, they may be anxious about a conflict with a friend and decide to simply avoid that friend, which might only make the conflict worse. Teenagers still need someone to help guide them through their emotions, even if they might not want to admit it.
Resist the urge to jump in with solutions or advice, regardless of how stellar your advice may be. Start with validation, which means conveying to your daughter that her feelings are understandable or make sense from her point of view. Validation does not mean you need to agree with your daughter, or approve of how she’s handling a situation. Validation can help someone who is emotionally overwhelmed to calm down (whereas invalidation often leads to more dysregulation).
After validating, you can test the waters with some open-ended questions to help her see a situation from a different point of view. If your daughter seems stuck in bad mood, you might ask, “When was the last time you felt this way? Did anything help you get through it? What made it worse?” You don’t have to press for an answer; trust that by just asking the question, you’re helping to lay the groundwork for thinking about a situation in a different or more helpful way.
When I’m working with teenage clients who are struggling with their emotions, I will often first ask them about their eating, sleeping, and exercise habits. We are all much less vulnerable to negative emotions in the first place when our bodies feel healthy and well-rested. If your daughter has a hard time opening up, you can still help by providing easy access to healthy foods; encouraging good sleep; and inviting your daughter to join you in a fun physical activity.
Finally, kids learn more by our example than by what we say, so look for opportunities to model how you handle your own emotions. For example, you might say, “I felt really stressed out today, which means I need to slow down and do some relaxing. Want to talk a walk with me?”
Few of us are ever formally taught about how emotions work and how to effectively deal with them, even though emotions play a huge role in our lives.
Best of luck for a fun and drama-free summer,
Rebecca is leading a group for teens in the fall. Learn more about it here: http://shelbyrileymft.com/services/group-schedule
Shelby Riley, LMFT is the owner of Shelby Riley, LMFT and Associates, LLC. She is currently the Past President of the Pennsylvania Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (PAMFT). Remember to check out Shelby’s website www.shelbyrileymft.com for useful information about therapy for individuals, couples, and families.