(hee hee hee - did you like all those exclamation points in the title up there? that's my idea of a real funny joke...)
But seriously, folks. Teenagers can be SO dramatic. All the parts of their brain are not yet reliably wired together for optimal synergistic functioning. The brainstem, which is in charge of the instinctive fight/flight response; the limbic system, which governs emotions; and the cortex, which is responsible for logic, reason, and learning, sometimes operate together as a well oiled machine.
When all the parts are communicating well, the cortex can settle the emotions and instincts down, thus inhibiting emotional outbursts and random running or punching. But since the lines of communication are rather tenuous in a teenage brain, they can become disorganized under stress, at which point logical reasoning loses its influence over the emotional or reactive default responses.
When that happens, big feelings can head right out your teenager's mouth without passing through a filter first. They don't think about how people might react to what they say. They just blurt it out raw. It's sort of like when I bit into a moldy date once. It tasted so nasty that I instinctively spit it out immediately - there was no time to consider how disgusting that must have looked to my unsuspecting dinner companions.
Sometime in our mid 20's, if all goes as planned, the connections between the various parts of our brain become pretty consistently reliable, and we become more able to make rational decisions about how to express our intense feelings. On a good day, that is. On bad days, unfiltered things sometimes slip through our adult lips, too.
So when your teenage daughter wails, "I am so humiliated that I want to DIE!" please don't call the suicide hotline right away. What she means is, "I can hardly tolerate this feeling of shame and I wish I could jump out of my skin to avoid feeling it one second longer!"
And when your teenage son mutters, "This world would be better off without some people in it," please don't treat him as if he is violent and dangerous. What he really means is, "I am extremely frustrated about something that happened, and I feel powerless to do anything about it, and I just want this feeling to go away."
When the brains of our teens are disconnected, it's doubly important for ours to be connected. We may be the only ones in the room at the moment who are capable of thinking rationally. We know that no matter how intense their feelings are, they too shall pass.
If we take their words at face value the first time we hear them, rather than seeing them as unfiltered emotional puke (pardon the gross metaphor, but it's just so true) then we run the risk of overreacting and adding fuel to their emotional fire rather than helping to extinguish it.
(a gigantic, important caveat: If your gut tells you that you need some help distinguishing your teenager's emotional puke from a sincerely suicidal cry for help, then please do not hesitate to contact a mental health professional for assistance.)
Often our kids and teens become even more upset when we respond with anger, worry, or fear to their outbursts, because they were hoping that our rational brain would stick around to toss them a lifeline and help them settle down.
So when your teen is hot, try to stay cool. Listen closely between the lines for the feeling that is driving them crazy, and speak to that rather than the specific words they said.
Simply acknowledge those intense feelings without judging them or trying to make them go away. We might say to our daughter who was so humiliated she wanted to die : Wow, something must have happened that you really wish didn't happen. And to our son: Holy smokes do you sound frustrated!
Don't bother trying to make them become rational right then and there by saying something like, "Now you know that's not true, honey. You have a lot to live for." Or, "You have no right to decide who should be here and who shouldn't. "
Emotions need to be acknowledged and released before the rational part of their brain can come back online. Take a breath, feel the weight of your feet on the ground, and stay calm. Let them know you understand that they are having strong feelings.
Later, after the storm has passed, they are calm, and feeling good again like you knew they would, it's time to talk about their word choice. That's when you say, "Honey, I knew that you didn't really want to kill yourself or anyone else because I know you so well. But sometime there might be someone around who hears you say that and doesn't know you well, and they might get scared and call 911 or the teacher or a counselor because they think you mean it literally. So I wonder if there's a way to express your feelings that is less likely to create some unpleasant fallout for you. What do you think you could say instead?"
Keep brainstorming together. It might take a few rounds to hit on a workable alternative. If they don't come up with anything, feel free to contribute things like, "Well, perhaps if you bookended it with, I almost feel like I could ____(kill myself)______ but of course I wouldn't ever do that, that would let people know you are just blowing off steam."
When you give your teens this kind of feedback when they are calm, cool, and collected, their cortex can make use of it. When you try to educate them in the heat of the moment, the cortex is not online to learn the lesson. To have the most impact and influence on your teen, wait for a connected moment, share the information and feedback they need to recalibrate their behavior, and offer your encouragement, love, and support.
For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit http://www.karenalonge.com/