cranky teenage girl

Where Did That Come From?

If a teenager has a sudden 'meltdown', parents very often struggle to understand why. It can seem as though it comes out of the blue: one minute, they’re fine – and the next it’s like you have a volcano to deal with!

There are two things to remember here:

  • Teenage brains are a work in progress; and
  • All behaviour occurs in a context.

CAUTION: BRAIN WORK IN PROGRESS

During the teenage years the brain is undergoing radical change. Many of the existing neural connections are pruned away – especially those that are not being used. They’re also being replaced by new circuits, but this process continues until the mid-20s.

The skills that can be affected include:

  • Complex problem-solving;
  • Moral reasoning;
  • Emotional regulation; and
  • Seeing the viewpoint of other people.

Also, this is not a smooth linear journey. A teenager can behave like a mature adult on one occasion and then revert to tantrum-throwing on another. Also, their threat-detection mechanism is working fine, but the skills needed to regulate this are largely absent. This means that something a parent thinks is 'no big deal' can trigger a response from a teenager that seems out of all proportion.

THE BIGGER PICTURE – WHAT’S THE CONTEXT?

There’s usually a trigger for the explosion, although a parent might struggle to put their finger on what it was. In parent-teenager situations, it’s often something a parent says or does, such as:

  • the tone of voice
  • a certain look
  • a particular phrase

…or a combination of these.

A parent might say that they didn’t do anything different, but it’s important to think about the wider context. Things can happen both within the family and in the outside world that ‘set the scene’ or increase the likelihood of a confrontation. For the teenager, it could be:

  • A lack of sleep
  • An argument with a friend, or a post on social media
  • A problem at school.

For the parent, it might be:

  • A disagreement with their partner
  • A bad day at work
  • A comment from a neighbour
  • Something on the news.

Any of these, and especially a combination of these, can create a situation where everyone’s feeling at hair-trigger level and a meltdown is more likely to occur.

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

Here are some of the ways a parent can reduce both the frequency of these meltdowns, and the chances of them recurring:

WATCH OUT FOR HIGH-RISK SETTINGS AND EVENTS:

This means tuning in to your own state of mind, as well as your teenager’s.

  • For yourself, don’t let events from your day, or interactions with your partner, contaminate your interactions with your teenager. This might mean taking some anti-stress time for yourself to make sure you’ve dealt with anything that you’re still carrying around.
  • Tune in to your teenager’s behaviour. Learn to recognise signs that they might be close to the edge and try to provide them with some anti-stress time before you try to engage them.

BE CAREFUL HOW YOU RESPOND TO THE VOLCANO:

Teenagers will build the brain circuitry that helps them to self-regulate their emotions, if you show them how by being a good role-model.

  • Above all else, stay calm. Don’t try to have a ‘sensible’ discussion with them – the part of their brain that can do this is currently offline!
  • Show that you’re concerned, and validate their emotional experience – don’t try to explore what caused it! (As tempting as it may be to do so, now isn’t the time.)

If you can stay calm and resist the temptation to solve the problem, the in-built calming mechanisms all humans possess will gradually kick into gear although it may take longer for some teenagers than for others. After they have calmed down is the time to talk.                                                 

Teenagers need to learn to self-regulate for themselves. Parents must resist the urge to step in and do it for them. Creating a safe environment and providing a calm, empathic and non-judgmental response will help them to do this.