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The Emotional Lives of Teenagers

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November 16, 2021

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 56

Encore: My Child is Turning Into a Teenager. How Do I Handle It?

Episode 56

Managing the teenage years can be overwhelming. Dr. Lisa explains what the toughest year is for teens and why. When kids hit thirteen they often become highly emotional. What happens in the brain and the body during this time? Dr. Lisa discusses the process of “separation-individuation” where young people seek to define their own identities – often by being hard on their folks. Parents sometimes assume that age thirteen is the beginning of adolescence. But is it really? And how can you help a tween or teen who’s having an emotional meltdown? Dr. Lisa has good news: the intensity of early adolescence doesn’t last forever and there are effective things parents can do to manage bumpy moments with their teen.

November 16, 2021 | 27 min

Transcript | Encore: My Child is Turning Into a Teenager. How Do I Handle It?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 26: My Child Is Turning Into a Teenager. How Do I Handle It?


The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional

mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,

consult a physician or mental health professional.


REENA: I feel like everyone is so irritable. I know we’re at various phases of this pandemic but I’m at the incredibly irritable phase and I feel like we all are at my house at this point.


LISA: You know the phrase I have seen over and over again on social media and places is that sense of hitting a wall. People are just like come on, is this still going on?


REENA: I mean I’m doing the chocolate that you say, something to look forward to in the afternoon as you recommended, planned a vacation, it might get canceled if we’re not vaccinated in the summer, but you know it it makes me feel almost like right when was becoming a teenager and just cranky and I’m like at 41 am I regressing?


LISA: Have you become irritable and reactive like a young person?


REENA: Exactly. I know that feeling all too well, and so this letter in our email box really stood out to me. It says: ‘Dear Lisa, love love love the podcast, you are doing a great service for parents. My daughter turned 13 in this COVID year and it has been so hard. Please make an episode on how to handle 13 during COVID times, and also how to help them deal with stress? Thanks so much.’ I just love this one.


LISA: I know it’s because I have to tell you she speaks for so many. Thirteen is so hard. I actually have decided over the last couple of years I think it may be the hardest age of adolescence hands down.


REENA: Is it the hormones?


LISA: Yeah, it’s probably the hormones. What we know when we look at the research actually is that emotionality peaks in 13 and it’s probably the hormones driving that finding because, actually we talked about this on the last podcast, girls are on the early side of puberty, boys are on the later side, girls hitting it largely around 12, boys hitting it largely around 14, you put that average together and you get some pretty emotional 13-year-olds, and so, it’s either the hormones or the neurological shifts of puberty where they’re emotion centers get super powered and their ability to maintain perspective centers are comparatively weak. They could become very emotionally overwrought at 13 in a way that they did not at 10 and that they actually won’t at 15, 16, 17.


REENA: But I feel like there’s nothing you can do to get it right at this age.


LISA: Well this is true. Because in some ways to me the reason I’m like, okay 13. I think 13 is really where so much of the action is with teenagers, it’s a bit of a perfect storm. So, one element you have is this brand new, the term we use in psychology is they’re very emotionally labile, which is a term meaning that they are all over the map and everywhere they go on the map is hugely intense. So, when they are upset they are profoundly upset, like doubled over sobbing upset. When they’re excited they’re really, really, really excited, you know so it’s a lot more fun when they’re on the happy side emotionability. So, that is a neurological, biological thing that’s happening, which weird kids out too. And I think we need to acknowledge to them how strange it feels to have their emotions take on such force all at once. So, you’ve got that storm coming. Then the other thing that contributes to it is at 13 the need to be separate, the need to be seen as one’s own person takes on real power because if you think 13, it’s eighth grade, right? You are like, I am done with being a kid. I am the only person now, and in that need to be separate there is, in its first form, incredible irritation with anything your parents do.


REENA: But can I tell you with a 10-year-old, I feel like it’s already started.


LISA: Has it?


REENA: Totally, you know, you’re so annoying, Mom, I hear that quite a bit at my home. I don’t know if I’m just the special one.


LISA: It sometimes does feel like that, right? That somehow moms are more annoying. Dad sometimes I feel like get a pass. So, what do you do that so annoying, Reena?


REENA: You know if I shut down Xbox, or I say listen you to do your chores you can’t do this, when they don’t follow through with their obligations, I, you know, stand firm on it and say you’ve got to do this before you can do that, or you know I keep nagging them is what they feel like it when I’m over and over again asking to do something and they haven’t done it, and that triggers them.


LISA: So you’re annoying because you hold the line. This is how I annoy my family, I don’t call the nagging I say, oh would you like a helpful reminder? Okay which of course is incredibly annoying for me to do.


REENA: That’s so good. A helpful reminder.


LISA: I’m giving you a helpful reminder. This is not me nagging, this is giving you a helpful reminder. So, here’s a question. Has it happened yet, and if it hasn’t happened yet it’ll come down the pike any minute, where what’s annoying about you is that way you breathe or how you chew, have you hit that level of being annoying to your kids yet?


REENA: Not yet, no.


LISA: Okay. 13, and this is the part where parents are like, what is going on? You don’t like the way I use my turn signal? Okay so this is, so you’re in JV annoyingness as a parent. You will hit varsity within the next three years. It’s quite horrible, actually, as a parent.


REENA: I didn’t realize there was a varsity team for annoying.


LISA: Oh yeah. You’llbe varsity team annoying. And I moved through varsity annoying with my 17-year-old, I’m now back to just garden variety annoying, and I am getting ready to join the varsity team again as my own 10-year-old is going to come around the corner towards 13 any day. So, here is actually, this is one of those moments where it probably does help to be a psychologist who’s a parent, because it is so painful with your 13-year-old when they’re like, you’re so annoying, like why are you wearing that, like you look like a dork. That kind of stuff suddenly gets very personal. So, what you’re describing isn’t yet very personal, like you’re annoying because you hold the line. Thirteen it takes on this very personal, like I don’t like the way you live your life, you know, whether it’s how you wear your glasses on the top of your head, I mean like whatever it is, it’s like these dumb petty things, and I remember hitting this and being like, really? Like really? I’m so annoying to you just being like my own little self? And so what I want to, sometimes you have to think, okay I’m gonna intellectualize just to get through this is a mother, the term we use in psychology is the phase of separation individuation. So becoming separate and becoming an individual, and what I started to realize in my own parenting is that anything I did that looked to my daughter or reminded my daughter of an aspect of her personality that she was wanting to have, so for us it was the fact that I liked Beyonce, and I’ve like Beyonce a for a really long time. My 13-year-old daughter, my older daughter when she was 13, decided she liked beyond say and found it deeply and annoying that I wanted to listen to Beyonce too. Because Beyonce it was hers. Okay, so anything I was doing that was like the vision of, you know, my kiddo at 13, well that was off the that was off the table because it was hers, and then because we were still so intertwined, and you really are still quite close in a lot of ways or at least involved in a lot of ways, with your 13-year-old, anything that one does or that I did that was unlike the vision of herself that she had was also annoying. This is why like let’s imagine like post-pandemic life, it’s eighth grade back to school night and your kid wants to talk with you about what you’re going to wear because what you’re going to wear reflects on them and they cannot tolerate if you look uncool, and so the the sum total of this, Reena, I mean get ready, anything you do that is like how your kids see themselves is annoying. Anything you do that is unlike how your kid sees themselves is annoying. Everything you do is annoying.


REENA: So, I don’t want to play for this annoying junior varsity or varsity team. Can you teach me how I can be supportive on the sidelines with never having to join this team? Or my setting myself up by saying it’s going to be impossible?


LISA: I love that you ask. I think what you just give voice to is the secret fantasy that every parent of a 10 and under has or 11  under has, which is like, okay I hear about those snarky teenagers and I hear how they treat their parents, but you and I man we’re getting along great right now. You think I’m fun. I think you’re fun. I think we’re going to be okay. Like we’re just going to, we’re never going into that area, like we’ll just stay in this happy little space and you’ll do adolescence without it. All right, Reena, it just doesn’t work like that. It just doesn’t work like that, and the the things that really help, one is understanding developmentally what’s at work, you know why kids have to do it this way, or why they are doing it this way, and another thing that really helps is not taking it personally, and that’s hard because when they’re going after, you know, dumb little personal things, it feels really personal, and so then the challenge is to not take it personally.


REENA: It’s so hard because you do take it personally, right? And I think about my relationship with my parents. This past year’s been so hard because I enjoy spending time with them, my in-laws as well, it’s the same thing, and so I want my kid to want to be with me all the time and I just don’t understand, like surely, Lisa there’s got to be something I can do that will, you know, I can’t accept it, and to hear you say you’re not quite the annoying that your son is talking about, it’s going to get actually personal and then it’s going to hurt.


LISA: It is. It is. So, that’s the bad news. Here’s the good news. It tends to be pretty short lived, and usually what gets kids through it is by 14 they start to feel separate and individual. That they’ve done the separation individuation work. So, for instance, you know, especially when they get into high school they often have their own interests, they’re often able to develop things pretty significantly. So, maybe you are not musical at all but maybe your kid becomes musical. So, now they have a thing that’s just theirs. It has nothing to do with you, and then suddenly you become a lot more bearable because now they have separated, now they have individuated, now they are their own person, and so the really good news in this is that it doesn’t last all that long. That it often be a very spicy and very taxing year, it is typically followed by an easing. It is typically followed by kids finding us actually not so bad after all, or not feeling like our dorky shoes have anything to do with them, right? That’s really where it shifts, and I think the other thing, though, that makes 13 so hard is, you know, suddenly your kid hits 13, they become highly emotional. They become unbelievably testy and snarky in ways that you just have not seen anything like it before, and a lot of parents, understandably, feel like 13 is the beginning of adolescence, right? It’s the first age with the teen at the end, and parents who have been bracing themselves for adolescence are like, this is how we start? This is the starting gate? What happens next? You know and they imagine this accelerating course of emotionality and snarkiness and so the really important news is to know, no you come out of the gate really fast and then it tends to down regulate. They tend to be better at managing emotion. They tend to not find us a bothersome, and I just, sometimes I think about like if I could hire airplanes to fly over major American cities with banners behind them, one banner would be, okay guys adolescence begins at 11, you know and we’ve talked about that, they will close their doors, don’t wait till 13, they start at 11 and emotionality peaks at 13, and I guess this is podcast is our airplane banner, right? These are the things I want parents to know.


REENA: That’s so interesting. I want to ask you the difference between girls and boys at this age, but before I do it I’m just curious, what can parents do? There’s got to be something? Should we talk openly about this, let them know what they’re going through, is it even worth having that conversation? Have you found anything that really helps in the parent-child relationship at this stage?


LISA: The thing that can help when a tween or teen is in this really testy developmental phase is to try not to react, but instead to say, look. You have three ways that you can interact with me. You can be friendly, I like that the best, you can be merely polite, and if you can’t do one of those then you can tell me you need some space. Those are the only options and that can help keep us in better places as parents, which is not to say that I have always handled these moments well as a mom, but when I have remembered that advice I have tended to do better.


REENA: You know something you said once at a talk that you gave here in Connecticut that I went to that I used literally the next day was the glitter glass jar. My kids were like 6 and 7 at the time and they were melting down and I could not understand and they could not understand. Can you explain that glitter glass jar because we made it. We did that project actually. I would love to because honestly that is probably the heart,the neurological heart of 13 is the glitter jar story. So, here’s the story, and it’s a great story. So, I used to travel and go places, and I was at this fantastic girls school in Dallas, it’s called Ursuline Dallas, and I was sitting around with the counselors and we were talking about girls having meltdowns at school, which especially I think in all girls environment schools will have meltdowns at school. They’ll just kinda lose it, and I and I say especially in all girls environments because I think they may just feel more free to just be themselves. So, I consult two days a week to a girls school. These are you know a fantastic team of women who work at a girls school. Melting down’s just part of what you do or what you take care of, and I was actually confessing my kind of helplessness in the face of these meltdowns at times and one of the Dallas counselors says, well that’s when I get out a glitter jar. And I thought, glitter jar. And she said, I’ll go get you one. So she stands up to leave and I’m thinking, okay whatever is coming back with this woman I know I already hate, and I was like, I hate it. Okay. Why do I hate it? One is it felt like pop psychology to me. I was like, I don’t know what she’s coming back with but it does not sound like, you know what a snob I can be, it does not sound like a serious psychology that I was trained in, and the other thing, Reena, we could have an entire podcast about this, I hate glitter. Do you have glitter feelings as a mother?


REENA: It’s so funny, I feel like I know I’m passing judgment on gender here, but I think so many girls and little girls just love glitter, that’s all the love, my son loves it, too, arts and crafts, but it gets everywhere,  it’s absolutely annoying.


LISA: It gets everywhere. It gets everywhere, and one mom said to me, yeah glitter it’s the STD of craft supplies.


REENA: That’s so well said.


LISA: That’s exactly right. So I hate glitter. So, she comes back in, I’m trying to not look like the cynic that I am, and she has a jar, it’s glass, clear glass, it’s filled with water and the lid is glued on, and at the bottom there’s like two tablespoons of sparkly purple glitter, and she sits down and she shakes it fiercely like a snow globe, and then she says when a girl comes into my office falling apart I do this, you know, she shakes it, and then she puts this glitter jar down on the table in front of us, and it’s swirling like you can’t even see through it at all and then she says, I say door, honey this is your brain right now. So, first let’s settle your glitter. And I’m looking at this and I’m like, okay this is a perfect model of the neurology of the adolescent brain, 13-year-old brain in particular, and this woman is a full-on genius. Like this is the smartest thing I have ever seen. So, the deal here it’s it’s the model of what we described at the beginning, which is in the course of adolescence the brain remodels. It becomes more powerful, faster, quicker, and this process goes from back to front. Everything in the brain in terms of development goes from back to front. So, the emotion centers are in the back of the brain, they’re in this primitive region of the brain. They get upgraded first. The reasoning centers, the perspective maintaining centers, the frontal lobes, those are in the front of the brain, they get upgraded last, and so there is this horrible juncture, and I really think it centers right at 13m when their brains are super gawky. The emotion centers are superpowered and really much more fast and powerful, and the ability to maintain perspective is just weak relative to that. So, the the way this looks in real life is that when your kid is calm, he or she can out-reason you, and this is true, and when they become upset the emotion centers are so powerful that they can just take down the whole system and take down the reasoning system, and then the way I have blown it for years and what I learned from this woman is, I try to talk to a kid in that state. What’s going on? What’d you do wrong? You should calm down, which I now realize in retrospect is the equivalent of shaking the glitter jar. So, what she taught me is, give them a chance to re-regulate. Give the brain a chance to come back into balance, and what is extraordinary with or without showing a kid a glitter jar, what is extraordinary is if you just say let’s just take a minute right, or do you want to go for a walk, or do you want some water, just to give them a chance to come back into regulation, to let that glitter settle. When I have done that, one of two things always happens. Sometimes that solves the problem because the problem was that they became dysregulated and then it’s over and there’s nothing to be said. The kid’s just like, okay that was super weird, thanks for riding it out with me, it’s over, and sometimes if there’s something to be solved, well, now you have their frontal lobes back online, you’ve got a rational human being in front of you, you haven’t even shot of sorting it out.


REENA: I love that, and you know what it is I also have about your philosophy is, explaining this to children. It makes them more aware of what’s going on so they kind of understand it and the glitter jar really helped. It helped diffuse tension because I would just say ‘glitter jar’ and they got it. They understood because we talked about it.


LISA: I love that. I love that, and actually I usually am not someone to say to teenagers, oh well it’s your brain that’s making you act like this or it’s your hormones because they usually find it pretty dismissive when adults that, but the exception actually is to inform a once calm, once they are calm, inform an adolescent about the neurological gawkiness, because my experience is that helps them to feel less out of control. It strikes them as very strange that they become so dysregulated, and so to say, look, here’s the deal is kind of in this awkward brain phrase, it’s not entirely you know your fault, you can’t do anything about it, we’ll just ride it out, your brain will actually you know get better into balance. That is the rare time where I have found offering a neurological account of something to be really, really welcome by a teenager.


REENA: In the last few minutes here, Lisa, could you just sort of tell us the difference between boys and girls. What do we need to look out for? What are the age differences, and you touched on a little bit, but it might help some parents to touch on gender.


LISA: Let’s assume this kind of centers on, 13, you know like we look at the broad averages, but I think that gender piece plays out in a couple ways. We know that girls as a group are cultivated to be more verbal and to talk about feelings more than boys in our society. They’re not born with that ability, we socialize it,I think a lot of parents of 13-year-old boys will talk instead about their plea becoming quite angry, sometimes physical or shutting down, whereas their daughter may become more expressively upset. So, I think there’s that. I also think that sometimes the separation individuation piece looks really different, daughters and sons, so I think that quality of sometimes when you’re the mother of a 13-year-old girl, everything you do is annoying, but your husband somehow is off the hook, and I think it’s sometimes that sense of like, well the girl doesn’t have to work so hard to be separate from him. She’s already a girl and he’s a boy, like they’re already separate, and I think this plays out in a lot of homes for the mom who’ve figured this out is they start saying to their like you know for presuming heterosexual relationship, they start saying to their husband, you need to go tell her to clean her room because they know that the kids will lose it in the same way.




LISA: I think with boys what’s interesting is same deal like they need to be separate from mom is not as ripe for them because they’re already separate, she’s a girl, he’s a boy, and I think what’s interesting with boys is it can be a time where dads and boys can start to have new things they connect around that feel neutral, I mean often sports, right? Watching sports or playing sports becomes a way that they can move into a new version of the boy that feels older and cool but not charged in an uncomfortable way. So, it can have this sort of different landscape based on gender, but the heart of it is they are emotional, they are trying to be separate, and parents are freaked out because it is a fast start.


REENA: It is. It is, but you know I feel so much better hearing this from you because it feels like it might potentially be manageable. That might be me being a naive mom with a 10- and 8-year-old.


LISA: It’s going to be manageable, Reena, we’ll get you through it.


REENA: You always do, Lisa, you always do. So I’m excited about the book giveaway for this week.


LISA: So, okay, So here’s the thing about 13. It is followed by fourteen, and I have to tell you 14 has always been one of my favorite ages, and the reason for this is that they keep a lot of the child like stuff still, they’re still kiddos in some ways, and then because of continuing neurological development, they become philosophers. They start to think in these really broad minded and inventive ways. They can take perspective on things, they’re incredible, and so 14, parents if you’ve got a 13-year-old or you’re worried about your kid becoming a teenager, 14 is just beautiful. So, the book that I am so excited to give away this week is a book called ‘Fourteen Talks By Age 14’ and it is from Michelle Icard, who is one the most thoughtful people out there about tweens, and has just done incredible work over years, she wrote a book called middle school makeover and this is her new book and it is brand new. It actually doesn’t publish until February 23rd, but we have an arrangement with her publisher to give three early copies away to some lucky winners, and it just walks parents through all sorts of talks about fairness, technology, all sorts of things, big topics , ittle topics, and what I really like about this book is that it is totally realistic. It is not the fantasy conversation, it is the actual conversation and it is scripts, it is brilliant, it is a huge contribution and I am thrilled that parents everywhere will have access to it soon and thrilled that we can give three parents an early look.


REENA: Well, I want a book. That is great. I’m going to have to buy one for myself, but if you want one just follow us on Instagram or Facebook at @asklisapodcast. Tag a friend, leave a comment, you can enter as many times as you want. For now it’s for folks in the U.S. but if you’re abroad, because we know we have so many listeners who are coming to us from abroad, still, we’d love to hear from you, and see if maybe we should open it up internationally as well.


LISA: Sounds great.


REENA: What is your parenting to-go this week?


LISA: Everyone is allowed do-overs is my parenting to go. Especially with 13-year-olds things can get pretty hot. Kids can say things they regret, parents can say things they regret. It is not always worth it to try to unpack and figure out what that was about. It can sometimes be very helpful to all parties to say, okay that went horribly. Can we just take it again? Can we just pretend that didn’t happen and start again? You start or I’ll start but we’re just going to let that pass go. That was not good. We’re just going to have a do-over.


REENA: And you get a chance to do it again.


LISA: Do it again.


REENA: I will see you next week.


LISA: See you next week.


The advice provided here by Dr. Damour and the resources shared by her AI-powered librarian, Rosalie, will not and do not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.