Resources for supporting a teenager struggling with emotions
February 13, 2020 4:08 AM   Subscribe

Looking for books, podcasts or other resources to help a (nearly) teenager with emotions. She's almost 13. She's struggling with rage and with friend difficulties. Expresses a lot of drama and unhappiness, especially when tired. Resources either for her or for the adults around her, either to help her understand her emotions or for strategies for all of us to make life easier for her.

We've been recommended the book Blame the Brain but don't like what some of the reviews say about the book's content around male and female brains.

She already does lots of physical activities and other stuff outside school. We're trying to ensure she gets more sleep, but it's a struggle.

Please, no recommendations of therapy, medication or medical diagnoses.

She may possibly read this question and the answers, depending on her parents' decision.
posted by paduasoy to Human Relations (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps try moodgym, which is a kind of online CBT resource suitable for young people? There is another one just for teenagers that sounds amazing but it's only available in Australia right now.
posted by caoimhe at 4:48 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

Ours found A Smart Girl's Guide: Friendship Troubles to be helpful at this sort of age.
posted by crocomancer at 6:03 AM on February 13

Has anyone suggested the super-simple rule of HALT?

You don't do stuff (like make a decision or say anything permanent) when you are:
  • Hungry
  • Angry
  • Lonely, or
  • Tired.
Those all cause you to make worse decisions, so first you fix that thing and then return to the issue at hand.

It's kind of dumb, but its simplicity mens that it's also hard to forget when you're at your worst!
posted by wenestvedt at 6:21 AM on February 13 [7 favorites]

Emotional Regulation is a major focus of DBT- dialectical behavior therapy. If you don't want to engage an individual therapist there are books, group therapy sessions that are a bit like classes, and lots of free online resources if you search using those keywords. Maybe podcasts too, I haven't looked myself.
posted by Sockpuppet Liberation Front at 6:38 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]

I don't mean this in a diagnose-y way but anxiety can often manifest as anger. Could you talk to her about what's on her mind that might be scaring her or making her anxious?

And a +1 to the HALT concept - it was a great help to me when I was younger and struggling with the same stuff.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:49 AM on February 13 [4 favorites]

how do her parents/family handle her rage? i was a rage filled teenager, which i now know is a manifestation of my depression. so meds and therapy would have helped, but it was the 90s and we just didn't do that. what definitely DIDN'T help was being told by teachers to be a lady and being told by parents to just put on a happy face and it would all be fine. what would have helped was someone engaging with me and just letting me rage in a safe space. it's okay to be angry. it's not okay to take out that anger on yourself or others. having a space where i could just feel angry and be angry and not be told to keep it inside and fucking smile would have been great.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 6:57 AM on February 13 [12 favorites]

If she is genuinely struggling with rage -- like, beyond what would commonly be considered adolescent difficulties -- then ruling out diagnosis/medication/therapy at the outset is going to hobble your ability to deal with her problem. There is no podcast that can fix a biochemical issue.

Other than that, +1 again for HALT and for letting her rage safely. Do you have an axe-throwing space in your town, or one of those places where you can go into a room and break a bunch of dishes and stuff?
posted by mccxxiii at 7:13 AM on February 13 [3 favorites]

+1 on anxiety manifesting as anger. I don't have any resources to point you to right now but this might be a path to investigate.
posted by Chairboy at 7:39 AM on February 13 [3 favorites]

I used to have a rage problem myself. Anger Management for Dummies was literally life-changing for me. Yes, the title--ugh. But it's very straightforward, practical advice written clearly and concisely. It may not be for your daughter to read directly herself, but it does contain a section about how to raise children to deal with their anger constructively, so that might be worth it for you to read. You may also find certain sections appropriate for her to read, even though the book as a whole assumes one has roles such as employee, spouse/partner, parent, etc.

I'd provide a link but I see that the version on Amazon currently is the 2nd edition and has a different author than my first edition copy (written by W. Doyle Gentry). I'm not sure what the differences are between the editions. However, if you can find the Gentry-authored version, I highly recommend it.
posted by Fuego at 8:01 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

Also, I know I've recommended it here several times before, but the Woebot app is a really nice little chat AI that helps teach the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy in daily lessons and check-ins. It's definitely teen-appropriate.
posted by Fuego at 8:02 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]

I’ve struggled with this most of my life and am now in therapy, so while I’m looking at it from an adult perspective, I remember myself at that age. My therapist has recommended the movie Inside Out very heartily to me and says it’s been helpful for her kids (as teenagers). I will be watching it this weekend so excuse me for recommending it beforehand but I know it has a lot of good science behind it!

For the adults wanting to help and for the 13 year old, the RAIN method that Tara Brach advocates is an incredible tool. Brach just released a book about it called Radical Compassion and it’s short and impactful. I wish I had read it years before, even before I was ready to explore these topics, just to prime myself to be open for it later in life.

But also — this age is fucking terrible. Especially, I think, for those socialized as female since “anger” is basically trivialized and laughed at. Does she know that it’s okay to feel a lot of emotions right now? Totally biologically appropriate and socially called for at an age when her peers can be terrible. Does she have permission not to play sports? To have fun? I know there’s no way you can cover all that in your question so these aren’t accusations, but allow her to approach her emotions with curiosity instead of making them into problems. She has to feel them to get through them. It has disastrous effects — ask me how I know! — to get the impression as a teenager that one shouldn’t feel so strongly.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 8:11 AM on February 13 [3 favorites]

Thank you all, there are some things here we will definitely explore or support her to explore.

Yes, we think this is in the range of "normal" adolescent difficulties, hence our feeling that considering therapy, medication or diagnoses would potentially pathologise her feelings. Those things aren't ruled out forever, we just think they wouldn't be helpful at the moment. Totally agree "this age is fucking terrible" and we have talked about that with her, though I think we may have seemed to imply "you just have to put up with it until you get older", which probably isn't helpful.

Also, we're in the UK, just in case that makes a difference to people's answers.
posted by paduasoy at 8:18 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]

+1 on the crucial concern being "How do the adults around her handle her anger/unhappiness/emotionality?"

At 13, this teen's feelings are developmentally appropriate (unless there's something this post is leaving out). Even if her anger and her drama seem excessive to adults, it is normal for her age. Her actions may not be acceptable (the post isn't clear what she's DOING that's so problematic? Is she even doing anything, or are the parents just freaked out about her feelings?) but helping the teen to modify her actions should not involve labeling her feelings as unacceptable.

For example, is the teen allowed to be as unhappy as she wishes? Parents are often freaked out by the strong, dark, even morbid thoughts expressed by the same teen who was such a happy sunny kid just a few months ago, and this post is definitely giving me those vibes. But the best thing these parents can do for their teen is to allow their child to express all her unhappiness and drama and morbidity to them, invite this expression, elicit it, and welcome it. They must strive to never even indirectly imply that she needs to stop being so unhappy and melodramatic: they have to communicate calm, non-judgmental acceptance.

Child psychologist Donald Winnicott talked about the child's drive to "destroy" their parent - and how the child only progresses to the next developmental stage if the parent still survives after the child has "destroyed" them. What this means in real terms is, the child will throw everything they can at the parent... and they are hoping that the parent understands fully, but remains calm, accepting, non-retaliatory, and loving throughout. The child levels up by watching the parent take something that feels poisonous to the child, and - without dismissing it or sweeping it under the rug - reframe it or metabolize it or give it a special word, and move on.

If instead the parent becomes personally distressed at the child's extreme expressions of unhappiness, that shows the child that the parent "can't take it" i.e. the parent has not survived the child's attempt at destruction. Children are very perceptive... Even something as subtle as if the parent of a teen starts to give advice - even "calmly" - this communicates to the teen that the parent can't deal with unhappiness. It shatters their trust in the parent's ability to "take it." Another brick is added to their wall of feeling like they (the teen) are too much, too bad, too emotional, too dangerous, and that something is wrong with them. When the parent doesn't survive, the child feels orphaned.

This teen needs her parents to become calm, placid, radically accepting CONTAINERS for her oversized emotions which she's developmentally incapable of handling. Her parents, as adults, must be willing to accept the emotions calmly, and show her through their reactions that THEY are capable of dealing with her oversized emotions... thus proving to her that she's not too much, she's not crazy, she's not bad, and even her most dangerous-seeming feelings are manageable.


I'll give you a concrete example that might come across as silly, but it does illustrate what I'm explaining. In the book Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry and Ron get into massive trouble for flying Ron's dad's car to Hogwarts. They're trying to sneak into the school, but they get caught by Professor Snape who flies completely off the handle at them: WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!!! and YOU BROKE SO MANY LAWS!!! and YOU HAVE ENDANGERED THE ENTIRE WIZARDING COMMUNITY!!! He carries the boys off to his dungeon, iirc, and mutters darkly at them that of course they're going to be expelled, just for starters, and maybe Ron's dad will go to prison.

There's an added layer of malevolent glee in Snape here which is irrelevant for now. Imagine that Snape was not gleeful. Imagine he was just genuinely stressed and worried and panicking about what the boys did. His behavior is a perfect example of horrible parenting/guardianship. He lost control. He didn't survive the kids' attempt to destroy him.

Both Ron and Harry are beyond distressed by his reaction. Both are wishing for death. They feel like there's no coming back from their blunder. They feel like this is the end of the world.

Then Dumbledore comes in. He's calm and very serious. He gives Harry and Ron a short speech that makes them feel even more guilty, though he doesn't expel them. Both the boys are still feeling like they want to die.

And at this moment, on his way out, Dumbledore does something that completely releases all the tension in that room. He puts his hand on Snape's shoulder - Snape is still sputtering out-of-control in anger - and he says, "Oh, Snape, come on, let's get back to the feast, there's a sweet for dessert you should really try!"

Now THAT is good parenting. Dumbledore didn't minimize the seriousness of the situation, but he was also personally unaffected by it, and he made sure he communicated that to the boys by talking about sweets in their earshot. Suddenly, it's not the end of the world anymore. Suddenly, this is just a matter of detentions and learning a good lesson, not DISGRACE!! and SHAME!! and YOU UNWORTHY SOULS!!! Dumbledore's equanimity puts even this serious mistake into perspective.

Now that's a parent who survived!


I highly recommend the book, "Parenting Without Power Struggles" by Susan Stiffleman (sp?) - it contains a really neat recommentdation for parents of teens which I've found powerful in a similar situation. The idea is for the parents of this child to be proactive in "draining the tank" of her emotions before the emotions spill over at the end of the day/when she's tired. They can establish a daily ritual centered around a routine physically oriented activity which happens when the teen is not tired yet, e.g. right after school - walking the dog together , weeding the garden together, cooking dinner together, or folding the laundry together.

While doing this activity, the parent asks gentle and open-ended questions which encourage the teen to process the events, frustrations, and thoughts of the day. The parent ideally does less than 10% of the talking, gives no advice, and focuses entirely on "draining the teen's tank": eliciting all the emotions she is carrying inside her. This is not problem-solving time. This is pro-active problem-prevention time.

By allowing her to talk about whatever is on her mind without judging or giving advice or censoring her in any way, the parent allows the teen to learn that expressing herself in words can take the pressure off of what she's feeling before the feelings get out of control.

If the teen isn't the talking kind, the parent and the teen can do something else like scribbling or writing/reading poetry or trying to learn how to play a song that the teen is currently obsessed with, etc. The important components of this are that it's expressive and that it's done with the parent, the container, the empathic adult who can accept what the teen is throwing at them.
posted by MiraK at 8:45 AM on February 13 [6 favorites]

I was a rage-filled teenager 15 years ago. I know you said you didn't want to pathologize this, but I have to admit that was the one thing that helped the most, because to pathologize is to externalize these feelings and realize they speak lies. It took many years for it to fully sink in that all the rage, the fear, the negative thoughts, the danger around every corner, the sense of looming failure and doom were coming from a malfunctioning part of my brain, not from "me". I started calling it my Idiot Brain. As in, that's not my good sense saying I'm a failure and everyone hates me, that's my Idiot Brain.

Other things that helped were 1) listening to a lot of punk music, and 2) having a community where I could safely explore my identity. In my case that was gender identity, but all teenagers are trying to figure out who they are in some way or another. So:

She already does lots of physical activities and other stuff outside school.
What's her community like outside of school, and does she have any unconnected-to-school friend groups? Does she have creative outlets? Does she have at least one day a week, every week, with no extracurriculars? Do you restrict her computer/phone time and if so are you cutting off a lifeline she has to a support network? Do you not restrict her computer/phone time and if not are you allowing her to get trapped in a cycle of social media-based drama?

We're trying to ensure she gets more sleep, but it's a struggle.
Hoo boy, I'm 29 and it's still a struggle, but the things that help the most are a cold bedroom, a heavy comforter, a white noise machine, and an eyemask. Also just allowing myself to read or browse MetaFilter for a bit if I wake up in the middle of the night rather than trying to force myself to sleep.
posted by capricorn at 11:55 AM on February 13

What I remember about being this age was that it was deeply frustrating. Schoolwork was mostly mindless busy work. Nothing I did 'today' seemed to have anything to do with my imagined future. Lots of yearnings for autonomy, but a lack of skills or confidence to practice many autonomous activities. Lots of schoolyard conflict where kids were learning and testing social rules. And yes, I was starting to have sexual feelings, but wasn't yet a legitimate actor in a sexual/romantic arena- lots of confusion and frustration. Sexism. Being constantly thought of as incapable by people in the world despite lots of growing capabilities. Being a teenage girl was legitimately awful, and I was dying for the validation of having parents or teachers recognize the oppressiveness of these conditions and just talk openly with me about them, without trying to make me "see the bright side."

Some things that helped:
1. Supportive adults I could talk to who were not my parents. Ideally, adults who were in some way 'cool'. My mom's photographer friend, etc.
2. A hobby that gave me a sense of identity, autonomy, and mastery outside of being a teenage girl. For me this was cello and horses. I could imagine getting a degree in music, and I could imagine that practicing my cello today as a a twelve year old would have a direct impact on my audition to whatever prestigious music school.
3. Media (books, TV, music) I could get really lost in. Including ragey music.

Also, two notes of caution from myself as a pediatric mental health clinician (IANYPMHC):
1. Having an "outlet" or "releasing feelings" isn't as effective at resolving persistent negative emotions, including rage, and may actually increase them. Punching a pillow, yelling in a corn field.. might feel good, and are okay as an alternative to actual harm of self or others, but not great for a young person learning to regulate. I'm not suggesting that if she already uses any of these to cope that you should take them away, but please don't introduce them if they are not already part of set of coping skills. These are called "emotion-focused coping" and are way less effective than "solution-focused coping," which are the set of skills that most pre-teens and teenagers are in the process of learning.

2. Persistent, extreme rage that interferes with social relationships isn't a normal feature of growing up. If it continues, she might benefit from outside help to learn said solution-focused coping skills. An occupational therapist who specializes in mental health could teach skills without it being like classic talk therapy. I'm not suggesting she has a mental disorder, but if she's lagging behind her peers in terms of learning regulation skills, the sooner she learns them and gets to start practicing them, the better (in terms of her relationships, academics, self-concept, etc.)
posted by unstrungharp at 12:57 PM on February 13 [2 favorites]

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