How Does Your Teenager Express Emotions?

The teenage years can be rough for the parent/child relationship.
I heard another wise counselor refer to a teenager as a large toddler, and she encouraged parents to revert back to toddler strategies to deal with teenage tantrums. One advantage to teenagers though, is their ability to communicate is years beyond the skills of a toddler. Even the "silent treatment" is a source of communication. As parents learn to recognize the ways their teenagers communicate, and especially how they share emotions, the easier parents can navigate the adolescent years.

This post will focus on the out-of-the-box ways that your teenager shares feelings. Parenting would be easy if your children always opened up about emotions and told you in a calm way how they are feeling, but that doesn't happen very often. Luckily, your teenagers are giving you clues to what's happening inside their minds and hearts.
Below are some things to look for:

Art Work:
Some of my favorite counseling sessions with teenagers revolve around art projects. Art taps into a different part of the brain than words, and it is amazing what insights are formed simply by analyzing colors and patterns. If your child enjoys drawing or painting, take the time to really look at the art work. Go beyond simple statements of "I like that" and "Great job." Try to articulate comments on your child's process of creativity, such as:

"I noticed you used lots of different colors on this part of the page."
"I noticed that you took a lot of time deciding which colors to use."
"I wonder what you were thinking about as you drew that section."
"Help me understand what your drawing would say if it could speak."

As you sincerely seek the understand and appreciate your teenager's artwork, your teenager may open up and tell you the symbols and meaning behind the drawing. Perhaps you'll learn that the art is a depiction of a break-up, an anxiety, a future dream, or a jumble of emotions. Maybe the picture had no clear meaning until the conversation began, and you will help your child understand what they drew! Hopefully you'll be able to help your child understand how their artwork parallels their real life.

If you notice that your teenage refuses to openly communicate with you after school, but he/she draws all night long in the bedroom, know that communication is happening. Gently talking about the artwork might be an easier way to discover what's on your child's mind.

I have had the pleasure of counseling some amazing young poets. I have never been skilled at poetry, so seeing a high school student excel at deep, personal poetry awes me. If you are hoping to get "words" out of your teenager, and they enjoy creating poetry, they are giving you their "words." Poems may describe their fears about school, conflicts with friends, worries about future college, or recurring nightmares. Oftentimes, my teenage counseling clients are afraid to show their parents their poetry. They fear the poetry would frighten their parents, who would jump to conclusions too fiercely. It is important for parents to allow their children to explain the poetry, just like the artwork above, in their own way. Ask questions about the symbols, the characters, and the prose.

"The word ______ is used frequently. Tell me why that word was chosen."
"I noticed the words became really fast and short in this section. Does that represent a fast beating heart? Or racing thoughts?"
"I feel ______ (emotion) reading through your poem. What emotion did you feel while writing?"
"The girl in the poem seems a lot like you. How can you overcome that struggle in your own life?"

If serious themes of death or suicide frequent your child's poems, and your child struggles to talk to you in a way that eases your mind, then suggest counseling. It may be easier for your teenager to talk to a counselor about feelings, and it may prevent bodily harm or death. Take those conversations seriously.

During college I broke my ankle, which ended my dancing career. Once I was healed enough to dance again, I choreographed a solo routine to express my journey. I performed the routine at a church talent show, and afterwards I cried in my brother's arms. He was the only one who understood my dance, and his opinion was the only one that mattered.
If your teenager loves to dance, pay attention to their choreography. What emotions are they portraying? What type of music are they dancing to? In high school, a fellow student of mine created a dance routine to Bon Jovi's "It's My Life." Her dance, and her song choice, got her message across loud and clear that she was angry at the director and me. She didn't even need to use words.

Fake Social Media Accounts:
I believe parents should be well aware of their children's Internet usage, and frequently check their phones. An anonymous online profile can be a place for teenagers to share pent-up emotions. For example, a girl with a low self-esteem who feels lonely may form a fake online persona of glamour and excitement and intrigue. In essence she is creating a world to hide out from her hurtful feelings - not a healthy option! A loving parent can help her learn positive coping skills to successfully navigate adolescence.

This is a no-brainer. The type of music your teenager rocks out to tells you what's on his/her mind. Pay attention to the iTunes and Spotify playlists. Is there an abundance of love songs, breakup songs, angry songs, teenage angst songs, violence, or sorrow? If you notice a trend, strike up a conversation using the skills I mentioned above.

Parenting through the teenage years can be rough, but it's vital to stay connected to your kid. They need you during those years, and if you can be a safe landing zone for emotions (happy, sad, and everything in between) then your healthy communication patterns will benefit you all.

Did I miss something? Is there another way to you find your teenage children expressing emotions?

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