Our brains are wired for survival, not happiness. I like to bring brain science into what we do at the teen support center with our groups and our individual clients because when they can make sense of what's going on in their minds, it helps them to cope in more healthy ways and be willing to buy into actually trying new strategies that aren't just a theory, but actually science-backed and evidence-based.
When we, as humans, first appeared here on the planet, we had one job, and that job was to stay alive. This meant that our main priority was looking out for anything that might harm us and avoiding it at all costs.
In those times, being hyper vigilant of danger and negative situations was really helpful to keep us alive. But today, this has evolved into us avoiding people, places, and situations, by numbing our feelings, and constantly distracting ourselves with our phones, and Netflix, and anything else in our lives so that we don't have to experience that discomfort or so that we don't have to feel struggle.
What helped us long ago as a species isn't necessarily serving us now. We often help teens recognize that something that may have been put in place in their life in the past to keep them safe or comfortable may not still be helpful to them now and, in fact, this interwoven part of their story may actually be keeping them stuck from moving forward or from living their fullest life.
Belonging was critical to survival long ago. Today it creates pain and suffering for many of our teens.
Back in those cavemen days, belonging was critical to survival. If you weren't a part of the tribe, if you were left out and alone, this left you vulnerable to getting eaten, attacked, or killed, so it was really important that you constantly be evaluating, "Am I good enough to be in this tribe? Am I pulling my weight? Am I looking like the other people that are around me?" because that was a survival technique.
Fast-froward this to today, and we're constantly evaluating ourselves as right, or wrong, or good, or bad in an effort to belong.
One of our values at the teen support center is to really help each of our teens learn to shine uniquely for who they are rather than to try to dim their light to make themselves belong with other people.
What's more, with social media and the ways we're all so connected makes it super easy to compare yourself to others, and it completely increases our fear of being rejected and not being good enough. We're constantly reminded that we're either not being included, or we look different than other people, or we have different things than other people. Again, while long ago this brain function kept us safe, in today's world, constantly looking around and feeling inferior makes us feel more alone.
What helps? What we work with teens on is a goal of accepting their emotions and being able to cope with them. This means that we need to actively work to dispel the myth that we are always meant to be happy and instead help our teens to gain the tools that they need to manage life's ups and downs.
This also means that you too, as a parent, have a responsibility to be curious about your teen's emotions rather than punitive about them. When you see your teen getting tense or angry, or sad, or slamming a door, don't automatically rush into punishment but instead get curious about what's behind that behavior. We always look at behaviors as a means of communicating an emotion. I want you start to get curious about what is it that your teen is communicating via their behavior.
Accept, Observe, Describe and Communicate
This 4-step process helps our teens understand their emotion and effectively communicate it to others. You can help your teen learn to actually become aware of and put their emotions into words too!
When you notice an emotion arise, don't jump to comforting them or trying to make it go away. Instead, lean into the emotion by asking your teen:
- What are the body sensations that come with it?
- What are the thoughts that we have in our head?
- What's going through your head when you're feeling this way right now?
- How big is this emotion?
- Can you put a number on it from zero to 10?
- Does it have a color or a shade?
When you can commit to holding the space for your teen's big emotions, you're communicating the message to them that you trust that they can handle the emotion (and that you can too so that they come to you when they feel overwhelmed.)