Growing up, I was very similar to my mother. We shared the same interests, values, humor and a love of the Chicago Cubs. We certainly were cut from the same cloth. Where we differed dramatically, and I’m placing a huge emphasis on the word dramatically, is in how we emotionally perceived the world. I wore my tender heart on my sleeve and my moods were varied and often extreme. She was practical. She could look at life and be logical. She was calm and steady. I was neither calm nor steady. All the logic in the world did not give her the tools to deal with a highly emotional daughter. Over time, and as I thankfully matured out of some of my emotional reactivity (note dear husband, I said some!), we kind of came to an understanding of agreeing to disagree. We no longer expected the other to be something or someone they weren’t and we stuck to the things we enjoyed. I appreciated her pragmatism and would often ask her for advice, and she admired that I loved life and others with my whole heart.
I would like to help you save some years of clashing with your kids. I can’t speak to every difference you may have with them, but hopefully you will find a way to relate what I know to where you are challenged in your own parent-child relationship. What I can speak to with great knowledge is how to help a passionate and sensitive kid work through their stuff while giving you some guidelines and practical tips.
The best advice I can offer is make some space in your life for their reactivity. There is nothing worse when in the midst of a meltdown than having someone tell you to ‘get it together!’. This only makes the meltdown worse because not only are your emotions getting the better of you, but you are also letting down your parent because you can’t get a handle on it. The best thing to do is to let it rip. Tell them you love them and that you understand that life is overwhelming them. Hug them and say it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to feel upset and that it’s okay to let it out. You can excuse yourself from the fray. Leave them alone for awhile and go in another room. Give yourself some time to calm down. Yes, it can be inconvenient to let your kid rage for a while, but I promise you, trying to contain it and telling them to ‘stop!’, only makes the tantrum beast grow bigger.
Later, after the storm has passed, take a few minutes to talk to them about it calmly. Tell them that you appreciate their passion about life and that you wouldn’t change that about them. Talk about how being emotional is a cherished part of who they are and that you admire their courage for expressing what’s in their heart. Come up with a game plan for when the next wave hits. Maybe they could find a spot in the house that is away from others and this will be their ‘safe space’ to cry/rage as much as they need. Give them a time limit. Ask them what seems reasonable to get it out. Do they need ten minutes? Maybe fifteen? More? Tell them that on days you are in a time crunch trying to get out the door that five minutes may be all you can allow, but that they can revisit their upset at a later time. The specifics aren’t what’s important here, what’s important is that you aren’t trying to change who they are. The goal is that you are trying to incorporate their world view into your family life. It may take time and it will take tremendous patience, but hearing that how they feel is acceptable over and over will help lessen their reactions over time.
The core of their upset is rarely what they say it is, because let’s face it, a lot of tween and teen drama seems so inconsequential in the grand scheme of life. The core of their upset is about whether they are seen, loved and valued exactly as they are. When they tantrum it is because they don’t believe that they are okay or that they are enough. What they really want to know is, ‘are you going to love me no matter what’?
The answer of course is always a ‘YES!’ Let’s make sure our kids know it.
Written by Diana DeVaul, MSW and Parent