Your Teen is Grieving. Here’s How it’s Affecting Them…

Lions, and Tigers, and Teenagers…oh my!

Teens can be mystifying. Even though we’ve all gone through it, adolescence is still such a confusing time when viewed from the perspective of the passenger side. 

You want to grab the wheel and say, “Here, let me do that, you’re all over the place! Where are you even going??”

But then they never learn to drive (driving is a metaphor for becoming an adult). 

So we step back and try to guide them safely, balancing ever so precariously their need to develop skills, while ensuring they don’t veer too far across the centre line or into a ditch. 

And it’s exhausting! You walk away from that drive with pit stains and a need to take an hours long bath where you contemplate existence.

Whoo boy! Parenting! WHEEEEEEE. 

Oh, and yeah, it’s a pandemic and on top of all the regular parenting stuff, you’re also managing their mental health, helping them navigate grief, and coping with your own overwhelm and grief. 

Wouldn’t it be great if at least ONE thing felt under control and easy to understand and manage?

Today let’s pull back the curtain (there’s your second Oz reference) on your teenager’s increased outbursts. 

Last week we shared with you that grief may actually be behind your teens behavioral issues. 

Last week we shared with you that your teen may be grieving, and one of the hidden signs of grief is that they are having increased emotional outbursts. 

What you learned is that the reason behind your teens new attitude is actually that they may be in immense pain, and they don’t have the skills to manage it or make sense of it. And so it comes out in other emotional ways: outbursts. These are emotional expressions/outlets that feel more in their control and are familiar to them. 

We often express ourselves in ways that are habitual. If anger was never accepted growing up, when we start to feel anger, we may turn it into sadness instead. If sadness was not acceptable growing up, we may turn it outwards into anger. 

When we do not know how to express something – or we don’t even understand what we are feeling – we simply try to expel the emotions as fast as we can in the method that is most socially expected of us. ​​​​

So how is grief behind your teen’s outbursts? 

Grief is highly related to both fear and confusion. It is such a difficult emotion that often times we can’t make sense of what is happening. It triggers deep primal abandonment and survival fears. When we experience a loss, it also flies in the face of everything we have come to know and expect as “safe, healthy, normal” in life. ​​​​

Sure, we KNOW that loss happens in life. But when it happens to us, we can’t help but go: Why? How? This is impossible to handle! This is not ok! ​​There is no room in my life for this type of pain. Make it stop, make it go away, make it better, make it go back to what it used to be. I can’t cope! Help!!

We experience deep deep fear. Panic fear.​​

Next, our life becomes confusing. What makes sense anymore? How will we move forward when things are so different? How do I find my way back on track and what does that track look like? Do I even have the skills to manage this? Will there be support or am I on my own? Who am I now? What do I do now? I’m lost. Help!!!!

Then, we also deal with the confusion of envy and jealousy that come in the form of: ​​​Why ME??? How come unfair things happen to me? How come I am the only one dealing with this and other people don’t have to? How come I am struggling and other people are laughing enjoying life? How come life is hard for me and not others? What did I do to deserve this pain? Will it ever end? Am I trapped here for ever? Will I ever find happiness? Help!!!!!!

When your kid has attitude they are saying “Help me!”

Help me, I’m confused. 

Help me, I’m scared.

Help me, I don’t know how to cope.

Help me, I don’t understand this new feeling. 

Help me, I don’t want to be trapped here. 

Help me, I’m alone. 

Help me, no one gets it. 

Help me, tell me I didn’t deserve this. 

Help me, I don’t think you understand me or what’s going on for me and I don’t know how to express it or make you understand. This is terrifying! HELP. ​

Let’s say you ask them to do their homework and put their phone away. You are met with an eye roll and an ugh. 

You ask again 20 mins later. 

They snap at you. 

What’s going on? Is it just that teens don’t like to be told what to do? Yes, partially. Because they are searching for independence, trying to assert themselves. But also because no one likes unpleasant tasks and teens don’t yet have the skills to do delay joy and do the annoying difficult thing first. It’s just brain development. 

But…there’s something else: ​​They just found out prom is cancelled. Life stopped for them. Because the tux, the date, the dance – it was soooo needed and they had been dreaming of it for so long. Their brother got to go. Their friends in a different province get to go. They don’t. There is little joy left. They don’t know how to feel good anymore. 

Homework not only sucks, but it is not even on their mind. Escaping from the emotional pain is. 

Teens live in a state of emotional prominence. Meaning that their emotions and feelings come first before anything else: including tasks, logic, rationality. They are literally a ball of feelings flying through the world with no grounding. They are so emotional they could burst. ​​AND when we are emotional, we don’t perform well. So we likely don’t feel capable of doing teh homework, so we extra extra avoid it. 

So when you suggest a task and they snap back, you hear the anger or rudeness. “Ugh, get off my back”. 

​​But what you don’t hear is: “I don’t think I can do homework. What is the point of school when it’s work work work work and I don’t even enjoy it and I don’t get to see my friends and there’s nothing fun to look forward to and this is my one time to be a teenager and I’m stuck on zoom, or in the classroom terrified of getting sick, I have anxiety through the roof because of it, and that anxiety is making my grades slip because I can’t focus on the work and now I won’t get into university or get a scholarship and we don’t have a lot of money and you’re going to be disappointed in me anyway and I can’t say I’m sad about prom because no one gets it so I just shut up and I guess I’m just alone in my pain. And I don’t know where to put this pain. So I go to Instagram and scroll and scroll and scroll because it is engineered to give me a hit of that feel good drug called dopamine. I don’t know how to feel good and joyful anymore, the pandemic has zapped me, and you are overwhelmed and so I don’t wanna put more burden on your shoulders and I wish you trusted me to be able to take care of myself. But also I still need you but we can’t seem to find our right balance together so I feel so misunderstood all the time, like no one is stopping to figure out what’s going on inside me. And trying to explain it just overwhelms me more….so I just keep it inside…so yeah. Get of my back…..”. ​​

Holy cow!

Pain. Fear. Confusion. 

​​​​​​It has to come out. It explodes out. 

When teens are saying “Ugh, I literally cannot anymore”, it’s not just a funny internet dialect they picked up, they actually mean it. They simply can’t. They can’t cope. They can’t focus. They can’t manage homework tasks. They can’t communicate the way they wish they could. They can’t. ​​

We call this emotional dysregulation. When someone is at capacity emotionally, they can no longer regulate (make room for) all their emotions and so they start leaking out in other areas of life.

​It is a huge skill to be able to stay grounded and present in moments when we feel terrified and overwhelmed. We want the feelings to leave our body because they are so unpleasant – so we act out because it feels cathartic!!! 

​​Screaming at you is not the behavior your teens WANT to do, but it’s the only way they know how to dispel the inner pain. AND it’s the only way they know how to be heard. They think “If I lash out, then maybe someone will notice how much I am struggling. Maybe it will make them stop and check in. Because I am not ok”.

But too often we see the outburst and go “That’s not acceptable behavior. Talk to me when you are calm and respectful”. 

So they go away, still carrying their grief, pain, fear and confusion. With the added burden of shame and guilt for their behavior, AND the stress of realizing that no one takes the time to really understand them. They just feel dismissed. ​​​​

It can be really hard to read something like this, and see that behind the curtain not everything was as it seemed. I don’t want you to kick yourself for not knowing that this was their inner dialogue/experience. 

Chances are they don’t even realize this is their inner dialogue/experience. It has only been through extensive research, clinical work, and interviews that we are grasping a better understanding of adolescence. When we know better, we do better. 

This insight is new to you for a reason. Because it’s NEW! ​​

We are unlearning what we thought we knew about adolescent behavior, and we are reconstructing our approaches now that we better understand their inner world and needs. It is a pleasure to share with you these insights as I know they will help you, not shame you. 

It probably all makes sense now. Think of the last time you lashed out….I bet you were feeling fear, confusion, overwhelm, self-doubt, and you desperately needed to be heard and weren’t sure how to express yourself. You were at capacity and you did what came instinctually to expel the negative emotions from your body. 

Next time your teen has attitude, I’m not asking you to accept it, laugh it off, or say it’s OK to have attitude. We DO still want to guide them towards more respectful communication!! But before you make any decisions on how to handle their attitude and teach them healthier communication, I want you to take some time to reflect on what is behind their attitude. Try to ask them: What are you feeling right now? 

Here’s what I can assure you: That as soon as they feel heard, their tone changes.

Grief needs to be heard in order to be processed and resilience to emerge. 

This pandemic has made us all grieve. For ourselves and for each other. And more and more that grief is resulting in difficult behaviours that are affecting family relationships.