Navigating the big emotions that come with adolescence

An adult attempting to speak to a disinterested teen.

Raising a teenager has never been more challenging, but there are steps every parent can take to make the journey easier.

For starters, know what to expect, advised Baylor Medicine psychology fellow Caroline Gonynor, a specialist in adolescent medicine. “One of the biggest questions I get from parents is ‘What’s normal during the teen and tween years?’”

Gonynor helps parents prepare for what she calls the big emotions that are normal during adolescence. “Between hormone fluctuations and the social changes that occur in a teenager’s life – new schools, new friends, new activities – there is a lot going on psychologically. Your child is trying to develop their identity – who they are, who they want to be and their goals for the future. All of that can bring on some big emotions. It could be frustration, annoyance, sadness or worrying about the future. All are perfectly normal and to be expected.”

Initiating conversations about these feelings is highly encouraged, Gonynor said, and can help young people develop lifelong coping skills. Parents should also watch for warning signs that professional help may be needed.

For example, a sudden change in behavior from a teen who is annoyed or frustrated intermittently to a child who is constantly frustrated at everything can be a sign of depression. Similarly, while it’s normal for teens to worry about things in the future, like where to go to college, it’s not normal when worrying begins interfering with daily activities.

“Parents are the experts when it comes to their child,” emphasized Gonynor. “They know best when something is off or going on. They can sense different behavior patterns.”

Other behaviors to watch for include isolating more than usual or changes in sleep and eating patterns, which may also be signs of anxiety or depression and should prompt a conversation.

“Open communication is important. So is a calm approach,” she continued. “Parents tend to step in and be problem solvers. That pull is understandably strong. Nobody wants to see their child in pain or struggling. But sometimes teens just need to vent.”

“When your teen comes to you with something stressful or something they’re struggling with, take a step back and actively listen. Talk to them without giving advice. Teens may put up defensive walls if they sense they’re being lectured.”

“Taking some deep breaths and managing your emotions can be tough, but it helps keep the door open to further conversations,” she added. “You want to develop a good rapport and communication habits when they’re young, so they feel safe coming to you with bigger questions and concerns as they get older when the topics get more sensitive and important.”

For those with younger girls, behavioral modeling is key. “They’re watching how you deal with stress and conflict.”

To learn more tips and techniques on raising healthy teens and tweens, including how to know when therapy is needed, join Gonynor and a team of experts at Girls Elevated 2024. This fun, interactive 10th-anniversary event is designed to make the journey through adolescence easier for girls and their parents. Girls Elevated will take place on Saturday, April 20, 2024, at United Way-Greater Houston, 50 Waugh Drive, Houston, 77007. Learn more.

By Sharon Dearman, a writer with the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology

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