A Counterintuitive Approach to your Irritable Teen
Dr. Lynn Margolies
Some things about raising teens are counterintuitive. Like knowing that when they’re irritable or angry and you feel rejected, it may not work to tell them you feel hurt by how they’re treating you. And knowing that if you tell them you feel bad about a mistake you made that affected them, it may ruin the positive effect of taking responsibility.
Revealing vulnerable feelings can backfire in certain situations and bring on or exacerbate irritability and anger in teens. Such feedback is typically a good thing and serves to repair or deescalate conflict in relationships. Saying that you feel bad about how you affected the other person is often an essential part of an apology that works. And making people aware of the impact they’re having on you when they’re lost in their own reactions can allow them to see your humanity and “come to,” as well as help kids develop emotional intelligence when empathic skills are needed. But with certain teens and parents, it can be a different story.
Tyler, 17, was a good-hearted kid and well liked, especially by adults. Battling with anxiety and ADHD, Tyler was easily frustrated, overwhelmed, and susceptible to feeling like a failure. At home, he could be irritable and withdrawn - frequently overreacting when feeling exposed, mistrusted or challenged in any way. Though there was a strong love and mutual attachment between Tyler and his mom, he often seemed annoyed with her, which made her feel rejected. Keenly aware of his vulnerability to feel demoralized, and sensitive herself to Tyler’s reactions, his mom often tiptoed around difficult topics.
One day, when Tyler’s mom was dropping him off at the airport for a weekend trip, she was uncertain about where she could pull the car over. Sensing Tyler’s stress and impatience, she became flustered. Tyler responded to all of this with impatience and annoyance, “Turn on your brain, mom, it’s right over here.” “That’s very mean and hurtful, Tyler.” “OMG- you’re so sensitive- it’s pathetic!” Tyler shot back, escalating as he opened the car door to get out.
Understandably, Tyler’s mom felt mad and offended when her son reacted this way. In telling the story, she expressed some resentment over the unfairness of it, especially since Tyler would never react this way to his dad in the same situation. However, Tyler did not experience his dad as particularly breakable.
Why did Tyler’s mom’s feelings trigger him?
Shame and difficulty with self-regulation
Emotionally tuned-in parents can empathize too much and over-identify with teens’ emotional distress - making it easy to take teens’ reactions personally and come across as fragile. This dynamic causes teens to feel too powerful in a negative way. At other times they see themselves through their parent’s worried eyes and either feel put down and mad, or take it as confirmation of their own fragility. In this example, when Tyler experienced his mom as too sensitive, too close or too worried about him, he became more irritable and angry.
Tyler’s mom was empathically linked to her son’s vulnerability, resulting in a vicarious emotional connection between them. When there’s a permeable emotional boundary, or when parents seem vulnerable, awareness of parents’ feelings can have an additive effect and further overwhelm teens.
Here, Tyler’s mom’s sensitivity activated the feelings of shame and insecurity that Tyler struggled to disown and keep at bay. He was already aware that he was being hurtful and hated himself for that. When his mom brought her hurt into focus and Tyler couldn’t distance, he experienced himself as bad and out of control - further disrupting his already compromised ability to regulate himself.
But if he feels bad, why does Tyler act angrier?
Anger as a defense against shame
In the case of struggling teens, focusing on their hurtful impact on you reinforces shame along with the need to defend against it. People will go to great lengths to ward off the intolerable experience of shame - a feeling of badness about the essence of who you are that makes you want to disappear. Anger and blaming others is a common defense against shame. This unconscious strategy effectively banishes shame for the moment by projecting it onto someone else and exposing them as the bad one. So, if the goal is to help adolescents take responsibility for their behavior and behave differently, parents will fail if they approach teens in a way that reinforces defensiveness and exacerbates the reason they acted out in the first place (emotional dysregulation, need for distance, shame).
If parents are not perceived as strong enough to hold their own in the face of teens’ negative mood without getting injured (or retaliating), teens can experience themselves as destructive - fueling both anger and shame. This dynamic makes it harder for teens to own their anger and progress beyond it, even in situations when their irritability is simply that they’re mad at their parent about something.
Then what should parents do when teens are irritable or disrespectful?
When irritability escalates into being explicitly disrespectful, the objective in the heat of the moment is “simply” to contain the escalation and not make things worse. Parents can do this by disengaging and setting a limit that’s brief and to the point. For example, “I’m not going to respond to that” or “I’m going to take a break from this conversation” (and exit the situation if possible).
Effective limit setting: timing, state of mind and delivery
Parents’ state of mind and delivery are key in determining the impact of limit setting. A posture that can anchor teens who are feeling out of control is to match their intensity (but not tone or attitude), by using a strong voice, having conviction, and sustaining eye contact. To pull this off, parents must be anchored themselves, and not in the throes feeling rejected, intimidated, or mad. If parents feel triggered, it’s best to say as little as possible.
Respect and collaboration
Parents can facilitate a mindset conducive to a collaborative conversation (at a later, calm time) by recognizing that teens are already on the same side since it feels bad to teens to be disrespectful and out of control. Having a more accurate perspective on teens’ inner experience positions parents to be an ally and leverage teens’ disappointment in their own behavior - rather than hijack their feelings and incite rebellion and struggle. For example, “You already know I don’t like it when you talk to me that way, but it’s not really about me. I’m realizing it feels bad to you to be disrespectful. I don’t think you want to act that way, but in the moment it’s hard to have control and you fly off the handle. Are you open to thinking through how we can handle this better together?” This approach shows teens that parents recognize their positive intentions and reinforces this side of them. Asking “permission” to have a discussion demonstrates respect for teens’ autonomy which, though it seems paradoxical, establishes buy-in and makes authentic collaboration more likely.
In order to help teens, we must accurately diagnose why a particular teen in a particular context is irritable or reactive – rather than respond in a reflexive way. Anger and irritability in teens can mean many different things, including depression. Taking this attitude too personally or being thin skinned complicates what’s really going on, changes the subject, as well as forfeits an opportunity to resolve the actual issue.
Normal adolescents can instinctively act prickly with parents to reinforce a boundary around themselves and create space to establish their own mind and identity. This reflex becomes an exaggerated when teens feel crowded or negatively impacted by parents’ emotions, Empathy for teens is not about selectively focusing on their emotional distress and mirroring it. Rather, it’s about having perspective on their behalf and being responsive to their needs as a whole, including the need for parents to have a boundary as well as tolerate theirs. By being anchored, parents can offer teens a different experience instead of blending with their teens’ state of mind.
When teens sense that they’ve hurt parents by being irritable and pulling away, they internalize the message that it’s mean or wrong to separate – creating a bind between self-preservation and loyalty to parents. This dynamic not only creates more irritability but interferes with identity formation and the development of an autonomous sense of self – the internal compass teens need to successfully navigate the transition into adulthood.
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas that occur in families.