23 Nov 2023

How to be an emotion coach for your teen

From Nine To Noon, 11:25 am on 23 November 2023

Getting "jollied along" by a parent won't help an upset teenager learn how to deal with their own difficult feelings, says clinical psychologist Zara Mansoor.

"One thing that's really challenging for parents – or just adults – is we want to get in, we want to fix things, we want to make things better. Actually, the most powerful thing we can often do is just sit with [the teen's emotion] and keep ourselves calm," she tells Kathryn Ryan.

A teenager in the sun wearing sunglasses

Photo: Nathan Cowley

Zara Mansoor is a PhD candidate at the University of Otago in Wellington.

We all experience strong emotion flipping the 'rational' part of our brain out of the driver's seat, Mansoor says, and young developing brains are particularly prone to such a flip.

"You see these incredible moments of empathy and perceptiveness and then your next minute, it's emotional overwhelm or shutdown."

In those moments, teenagers need coaching from an adult to regulate their emotions, she says.

This kind of coaching is a way that parents can both offer and model the thing the young person will benefit from most - empathy.

"We want to think about connecting with our young people, trying to understand what's going on for them and then help them understand.

"By saying 'Hey, looks like you had a really tough day, or you're really struggling with whatever' that is actually the best way that we can then get them to do that for somebody else later on."

If difficult emotions seem to be having a tangible negative impact on a young person's life, anxiety or depression may be a consideration, Mansoor says.

"Is it stopping them from doing the things they want to want to do? Is it interfering with schoolwork? Is it interfering with relationships or some of the more day-to-day things like eating and sleep?"

Anxiety often presents itself in the body as a stomach ache, headaches or just not feeling well, she says, and avoidance – suddenly not wanting to do things or go places – is another common sign.

While teenagers have to go and figure stuff out on their own to a degree, it's really important they have an adult who really listens to them and supports them in learning how to manage strong emotions.

"All emotional experiences are valid and having strong emotions in and of itself isn't a concern. That's something that we want to work on ourselves being accepting of."

When faced with an emotional teen, parents often automatically jump into problem-solving mode, Mansoor says, but it's really important to refrain from doing that.

"Think of yourself if you've had a tough day and you come home and you want to have a bit of a chat about it and someone just launches into giving you a whole lot of 'have you tried this?' and it actually makes you feel worse or more upset.

"Instead of trying to get to the solution, the primary thing is to maintain and try and nourish a relationship 100 percent.

"If [the teenager] feels like they've got that trust, that connection with you, you can negotiate, they feel like they can move forward."

The often challenging work of emotion coaching demands adults be "the bigger, wiser, kinder, stronger people" in their interactions with teens, she says, which is something no human can do perfectly all the time.

"This is very much about 'good enough' and that [is what] makes a difference."

When taking a stand that their teenager doesn't like, parents can simultaneously hold their ground and offer empathy, she says.

"You can hold both those things and acknowledge 'Yeah, it sucks, and it sucks to have a parent that's not doing the same thing as the others' and still hold the line on it. Generally, we think about acknowledging that emotion first and [then also] you can hold the line.

"Depending on the situation, if it's less of a firm line or there is some wiggle room, see if you can get into some negotiation with the young person and ask them what they think would be a compromise.

"I don't understand why this is upsetting but for them [but] can I get in their head, see how what that might be if they say 'all my friends have got one? [for example]' ... Get inside their world a little bit more."

In this interview, Zara Mansoor mentions the parenting programme Tuning Into Teens (TINT), developed by clinicians and researchers at the University of Melbourne. You can read about it here and find further emotion coaching resources on the Tuning Into Kids website.


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