How to Help Your Teen Deal with Painful Emotions

Distracting Your Teen from Painful Emotions

It is very painful for parents to see their teenagers in emotional distress.  The love you as a parent have for your children can make the experience of seeing them suffer unbearable.   Many parents have such a difficult time with this that they will do anything to stop it.  This can include the strategy of distracting their teenagers from what is happening to them.  I am talking about doing something special for the teenagers like buying them something, giving them some unusual freedom, a release from some responsibility, or in general providing them with some pleasant experience that is designed to “get their minds off it”.  Although well intentioned, I believe that this way of dealing with your teenager’s emotional pain, and the pain that it in turn causes in you, is counterproductive in the long term. 


Why am I Distracting Them From Their Emotions?

It is important to understand the motivations behind the behavior of distracting teenagers from their emotions.  It makes sense to me to consider two important parts.  The first one is ostensible.  You want your teenager to stop suffering and feel better.  This is fair enough and it is true that in the short term a distraction could work.  The second part has to do with you as a parent.  If you are honest with yourself it would go something like this:  I am doing this because of my discomfort with what my teenager is going through and distracting them from their emotional distress will help me cope with it.  Recognizing this part of what is going on can help you to see that distracting them isn’t doing them any favors and  it might be more about making you feel better. 


The Downside of Diverting Emotions

In short, distracting teenagers from their intense and painful emotions teaches them to ignore what they are feeling.  Once in a while this is not a big deal, but if it is done in a consistent manner over a long period of time it is harmful.  It is harmful because each time it happens it robs teenagers of an opportunity to directly confront their emotions, learn something about themselves and get better at managing their emotional reactions to difficult events.  One inadvertent lesson that teenagers can learn if they continue to be distracted by other things when they are having a negative emotion is this: My emotional reactions to difficult things are not OK and I should do whatever I can to stop them.  Emotions have a natural outward pressure to be expressed in some way.  Not allowing this process to happen by talking and feeling can forces these emotions to build up and be expressed in the form of a psychological symptom like a panic attack or in more subtle ways like difficulty feeling closeness in relationships. 


What to Do Instead

Let your teenager get it all out without judgment or interference on your part.  Be there to listen to your teen and try your best to understand as much as you can about why he or she is feeling this way.  Express back what you understood.  Try your best to maintain calm and to be emotionally supportive and comforting.  Often times telling your teenagers stories about similar difficulties in your life can help them feel understood and encourage a closer relationship with you.  Be careful not to impose a solution to the problem and allow them to think out loud about possible responses.  This reaction to your teenagers will teach them to handle their emotions in a far healthier way that will have positive effects in their lives for years to come.