You may want nothing more than to encourage your daughter to face her fears. And you may have already tried to share your wonderful suggestions on how she could approach a situation that has her wringing her hands. If you’ve gone down this path, you have likely discovered what most parents find when they try to help their daughter at the height of her discomfort: she considers every single one of your excellent ideas to be useless and rejects them all. There are many fun moments in parenting, but this is not one of them. In fact, it can be especially miserable to try to support a young person who lays her violent distress before us and then becomes even more upset when we try to be helpful.
What the heck is going on here?
She’s letting you know how helpless she feels by making you feel every bit as helpless, too. There are many ways to share a feeling. At our best, we can put our emotions into words and express them to the caring, supportive people in our lives, knowing that they will respond with warmth and compassion. At our not-so-best, we become overwhelmed by our emotions and communicate them by inducing them in others. This is what happens when we feel angry and decide to pick a fight. And this is what happens when a girl who is at the end of her rope engages loving adults in a way that quickly brings them to the end of their ropes, too.
Attempting to help, cajole, or advise anyone who is overtaken by distress rarely works (just as telling someone to calm down almost always seems to have the opposite effect). If we want to get to the place where we really can be useful to our daughters, we need to find a way to bear with them when they feel powerless in the face of emotions that have spun out of control.
There’s an ingenious strategy for responding to girls who feel frenzied, which I learned, almost in spite of myself, on a trip to Texas. I was spending time with some colleagues at an excellent girls’ school in Dallas when we got to talking about how forceful and overwhelming girls’ emotions can be. “That,” said one of the counselors, “is when we get out a glitter jar.”
Before continuing with this story, I need to acknowledge that I am not always a nice person. I can be sharply critical of anything that I view as pop psychology and I’m equally tough on anything I deem to be excessively girly. You can imagine that the term glitter jar put me on high alert on both counts. The counselor left and quickly returned with said glitter jar—it was a clear jar, about four inches tall, filled with water and a sedimentary layer of sparkling, purple glitter. The lid was secured with glue, and when she put the jar on the table between us, the glitter that had been stirred up in transport soon settled to the bottom. We were looking at a jar that we could see right through. Skeptically, I listened to what the counselor shared next.
“When the girls come to my office in a panic,” she continued in her Dallas drawl, “and I can tell that they’re just a wreck, I get out my glitter jar and I do this.” She picked up the jar and shook it fiercely the way one shakes a snow globe. The placid water immediately became a sparkling purple tempest. “And then I say to the girl, ‘Right now, this is what it’s like in your brain. So first, let’s settle your glitter.’” The counselor set the jar down on the table between us and I stared at it, completely mesmerized. As the swirling slowed and the glitter storm abated, I realized that these counselors had created a terrific model of how emotions act on the adolescent brain.
You see, somewhere between the ages of twelve and fourteen, the teenage brain undertakes a spectacular renovation project. It trims those neurons that are dead weight and matures into a nimble thinking machine that can poke new holes in old arguments, spin ideas around to view them from multiple perspectives, and simultaneously entertain competing viewpoints, such as happily following the antics of the Kardashian family while articulating a detailed and devastating critique of their lifestyle choices.
For better or worse, this neurological overhaul unfolds in the same order in which the brain developed in utero; it begins in the primal region that sits near the spinal cord and proceeds to the sophisticated area located behind the forehead. In practical terms, this means that the brain’s emotional centers, which are housed in the primitive limbic system, are fully upgraded before the brain’s perspective-maintaining systems, which are located in the highly evolved prefrontal cortex. When a teenager feels calm, her capacity for logical reasoning can equal or outstrip any adult’s. When a teenager becomes upset, her supercharged emotions can hijack the whole neurological system, unleashing a blinding glitter storm and turning your otherwise rational daughter into a sobbing puddle on your kitchen floor.
My personal hang-ups about glitter have kept me from purchasing the supplies I would need to make glitter jars for my private practice or my office at Laurel. This, however, has not stopped me from enthusiastically encouraging friends and colleagues who also care for adolescents to make glitter jars for themselves. But my encounter in Texas has changed how I respond, both at home and at work, to girls who are spinning in a cyclone of distress. In my head, I actually hear the words of that counselor saying, “First, let’s settle your glitter.” I now start by asking if a drink of water would be helpful or, should I have access to it, perhaps a snack. I force myself to be patient and to hold myself steady while wondering aloud, and without any urgency, if it might feel good to stretch our legs with a short walk, or to work on some coloring pages I keep handy.
It is not easy to restrain my urges to jump in with reassurance, suggestions, or questions about how the girl got herself into such a bad spot in the first place. But when I hold off, and focus on making space for the turbulence in her brain to subside, two critical events occur.
First, the girl can see that I am not frightened by her feelings. This may not seem like much, but we need to remember that her prefrontal cortex is hobbled by emotion and cannot possibly, at least for the moment, take an objective view of whatever happened to trigger her frenzy. When adults respond calmly and without being dismissive, girls can see that we are taking the situation in stride. This is a lot more reassuring to adolescents than a frenetic, all-hands-on-deck reaction, which signals that their crisis scares us as much as it scares them. Plus, as most parents have learned the hard way, pressing advice on a girl who already feels overwhelmed, or asking her what she did to land herself in the crisis, usually seems to be the equivalent of shaking her mental glitter jar.
Second, once the glitter storm subsides, a girl’s rational cortex comes back online. Now clearheaded, she can think about how to tackle the source of her overwhelming anxiety or conclude that the problem isn’t so bad after all. This explains the bizarre, yet common, sequence of events that occurs in any home with a teenager. First, the adolescent falls to pieces. Next, she rebuffs any help or suggestions her parents offer before retreating, in an agitated fit, to her room. Her parents—who are now in pieces themselves—frantically consider packing their daughter off to the psychiatric emergency room, asking the family minister or rabbi to stop by for an emergency consultation, or relocating to a new community where their daughter can start from scratch.
Eventually, the girl reappears in a completely reasonable state of mind. She shares her thoughtful response to her predicament with her utterly befuddled, yet sincerely relieved, parents. Or she seeks their advice. Or she is in good spirits and acts as though nothing has occurred at all. It’s a good rule of parenting to remember that making time and space for a girl’s neurological glitter to settle almost always either solves the problem or at least makes solving the problem possible.
That said, weathering a teenager’s glitter storm may be one of the most taxing events in all of parenting. It does not matter that a girl’s feelings are, at these times, overblown or irrational; they are very real to her and to any loving parent in her presence. When your daughter loses perspective, it’s easy for you to lose perspective, too. Accordingly, it often helps to have an advance plan for these moments. A friend of mine keeps a large stash of tea in the pantry for when her daughter becomes overwrought. To keep herself calm while her daughter’s glitter settles, my friend pulls out the tea collection and studiously lays out the choices before her daughter. Might herbal tea be best, or would some caffeine help? What flavor sounds good? Might milk or honey make the tea even better?
As parents we want to respond, but not react, to our daughters’ meltdowns. Weighing tea options allows my friend to offer her full presence and support without becoming caught up in her daughter’s swirling yet fleeting emotions. Other parents accomplish this delicate balance by listening quietly to their girl before discreetly turning to their partner, a trusted friend, or a seasoned parent for support or guidance. Still others hold themselves to a twenty-four-hour rule: they refrain from taking any action in response to their daughter’s torrential distress until at least a day has passed. All parents need strategies for riding out their daughter’s glitter storms; give yourself time to find an approach that works well for you and your girl....