Drama queens

As I vent to my mom about my teenage daughter, she reminds me of my own Jekyll & Hyde transformation when I was a teenager. Click here to read the full excerpt from the book Untangled by Lisa Damour, Ph.D. or the partial excerpt below.

 

When I was in my first semester of graduate school, the professor teaching my psychological testing course handed me a stack of Rorschach inkblot tests to score. Before sending me on my way, he offhandedly said, “Double-check the age of the person whose test you are scoring. If it’s a teenager, but you think it’s a grown-up, you’ll conclude that you have a psychotic adult. But that’s just a normal teenager.”

Twenty years later, I don’t need to score inkblot tests to know that healthy teenage development can look pretty irrational. Parents tell me about it every day. They describe how a minor annoyance – such as when a girl finds out that the jeans she wants are still riding out the rinse cycle – can turn into an emotional earthquake that knocks everyone in the house off balance.

The sudden force of a teenager’s feelings can catch parents off guard because, between the ages of six and 11, children go through a phase of development that psychologists call latency . As the term implies, the mercurial moods of early childhood simmer down and girls are pretty easygoing until they become teenagers and their emotions kick up again. Recent developments in brain science offer new insight into why latency ends when it does. Though we used to assume that the brain stopped developing somewhere around age 12, we now know that the brain remodels dramatically during the teenage years. The renovation project follows the pattern in which the brain grew in the womb. It starts with the lower, primal portions (the limbic system) then moves to the upper, outer areas (the cortex), where the functions that separate humans from other animals live.

Updates to the limbic system heighten the brain’s emotional reactions with research indicating that the feeling centres beneath the cortex are actually more sensitive in teens than in children or adults. For example, one straightforward study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to watch teenage brains respond, in real time, to emotional input. The research team showed images of fearful, happy and calm faces to children, teens and adults while monitoring the activity of the amygdala, a key player in the emotional reactions of the limbic system. Compared to the brain activity of children and adults, the teens’ amygdalas reacted strongly to fearful or happy faces. In other words, emotional input rings like a gong for teenagers and a chime for everyone else.

With the lower-to-higher remodelling of the brain, the frontal cortex – the part of the brain that exerts a calming, rational influence – doesn’t come fully online until adulthood. This means that limbic system reactions outstrip frontal cortex controls. Put simply, intense emotions burst through and introduce you, and your daughter, to a new period of emotional upheaval.

Adults often tell teens that their feelings are at full blast because of “hormones.” This usually doesn’t go over very well, plus it’s probably inaccurate. Despite the obvious coincidence between the beginnings of puberty – with its acne, growth spurts, and dawning smelliness – and the intensification of your daughter’s emotions, research suggests that the impact of pubertal hormones on teenagers’ moods is indirect, at best.

In fact, studies find that hormones respond to, or may even be trumped by, other factors that influence your daughter’s mood, such as stressful events or the quality of her relationship with you.

In other words, the changes in your daughter’s brain and the events that occur around her are more likely to shape her mood than the hormonal shifts occurring inside of her.

Here’s the bottom line: What your daughter broadcasts matches what she actually experiences. Really, it’s just that intense, so take her feelings seriously, regardless of how overblown they might seem. Parents who are surprised by their daughter’s dramatic ups and downs can lose sight of the fact that she is pretty shocked, too.

So if your teenage daughter is developing normally, you are living with someone who secretly worries that she is crazy and who might have the psychological assessment results of a psychotic adult. And we might as well add that you are living with a girl whose key support system – her tribe – consists of peers who are also as reactive and erratic as they will ever be. Your daughter works hard every day to harness powerful and unpredictable emotions so that she can get on with doing everything else she means to do.

To manage all of that intensity and to keep from feeling crazy, she’ll recruit your help. Depending on the moment, she might ask for your support directly, she might unload her feelings on you or she might find a way for you to have a feeling on her behalf.

Sometimes you’ll recognize the role you are being asked to play, other times you’ll only appreciate your part in retrospect, if at all. Understanding your daughter’s efforts to harness emotions will allow you to maintain your sanity while you’re busy helping her feel confident in her own.

Teenagers often manage their feelings by dumping the uncomfortable ones on their parents, so don’t be surprised if you find that the arrival of adolescence comes with a surge in complaining. No parents enjoy listening to their daughter’s endless stream of complaints, but it’s a lot easier to stand if we appreciate that her griping serves a valuable purpose.

Complaining to you allows your daughter to bring the best of herself to school. Instead of being rude or aggressive toward peers or teachers at school, your daughter contains her irritation and waits until she is safely in your company to express it.

If she can hold it together all day at school, you might wonder why your daughter can’t hold it together a little bit longer so that she can also be pleasant with you. As it turns out, willpower is a limited resource. By the time they get to the end of the day, there’s just no energy left to contain their annoyance, and the complaining begins.

Girls who get a chance to talk about the abundant frustrations of their day usually feel better once they’ve unloaded their distress on you. Any adult who has spent dinnertime grumbling about a co-worker, neighbour, or boss understands that sharing one’s true feelings at home makes it a lot easier to be charming out in public. Teenagers are no different. Having used you as their emotional dumping ground, they are prepared to return to school and play the part of the good citizen.

Indeed, they may be able to act as a good citizen at school precisely because they are spending some of their time imagining the colourful complaints they will share once their school day has ended.

When your daughter complains, listen quietly and remind yourself that you are providing her with a way to unload the stress of her day. Many parents find that they want to do something as they listen to their daughter’s distress – to offer advice, point out their daughter’s misconceptions, make a plan to address her troubles, and so on. Do not feel pressed to solve your daughter’s problems; you’ve probably tried and already found that she routinely rejects your suggestions, even the especially brilliant ones.

If you really want to help your daughter manage her distress, help her see the difference between complaining and venting. Complaining generally communicates a sense that “someone should fix this,” while venting communicates that “I’ll feel better when someone who cares about me hears me out.”

Most of what teens complain about can’t be fixed. No magic wand can make her peers, teachers, coaches, locker location, or homework any less irritating. Better for her to do a little less complaining about such realities and a little more venting. In doing so, she moves away from the childlike idea that the world should bend to her wishes to the adult idea that life comes with many unavoidable bumps.

How do you get her to do this?

When she starts rolling out the complaints, consider asking, “Do you want my help with what you’re describing, or do you just need to vent?”

If she wants your help, she’ll tell you. Even better, she might take your advice having actually asked for it.

If she wants to vent, she’ll tell you and you can sit back and know that just by listening you are offering meaningful support. More important, she’ll start to learn that sometimes, just by listening, you are providing all the help she needs. Your daughter may be suspicious of your motives the first time you offer her the opportunity for unbridled venting. If she has grown used to getting (and, of course, reflexively rejecting) your advice when she complains, she may wonder what you’re up to. But stick with it and be clear that you believe in the healing powers of “just venting.” Soon, she’ll come around. Don’t expect that venting will – or should – fully replace complaining. But do take advantage of opportunities to help your daughter distinguish between problems that can and should be solved and problems that are best addressed by sharing them with someone who cares.

If the content of your daughter’s venting strikes you as totally unfair and you feel compelled to weigh in, consider saying, “I have a different take on the situation. Do you want to hear it?” Should she say yes, carry on. Should she say no, bite your tongue and find comfort in the knowledge that your daughter is now aware that she shouldn’t mistake your silence for a tacit endorsement of her views.

Congratulate yourself when you can get your daughter to advance to venting, because there will be times when you won’t even be able to get how she expresses her displeasure up to the level of complaining (much less venting). These are the days when she simply takes out her annoyance on anyone in her path – a particularly unpleasant, and common, form of using you (your other children, or the family dog) as an emotional dumping ground. If your daughter feels that she must punish your family for her bad day, you might let one or two cutting comments pass. But, if it becomes clear that she plans to be wretched all evening, go ahead and say, “You may not be in a good mood, but you are not allowed to mistreat us. If you want to talk about what’s bugging you, I’m all ears. If you’re going to be salty all night, don’t do it here.”

 

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