I was talking to Hallie* yesterday in the clinic about her 11 and 14 year olds and she said: “once upon a time, I had two happy, cheery and positive children. Now, they don’t stop complaining, being miserable and unhappy about something in their day…it’s depressing me! Where are my happy kids gone?"
Hallie's kids is pretty normal.
Here’s what to know about miserable preteens and teens:
1. It’s normal for this age group to experience more negative emotions than they did when they were younger
Being miserable, frustrated, insecure and sad actually has a lot to do with thinking skills. When kids are younger they live in the moment. They are not particulary skilled at being able to predict the future, think about what others think of them and evaluate themselves or life in a negative way. However, once they get to the age of about 9 or 10, their abilities to do these things improve (which is what we want, in many ways) which means they are more likely to experience more negative moods, more often. Hello, moody preteen.
2. Feeling bad is feeling bad – whatever the trigger.
When adults tell us about being upset about losing their job, feeling rejected by friends and stressed by workload - we feel sympathetic. These things seem to be "reasonable" causes of distress. But when kids tell us about being upset about losing a netball game, a friend telling them they can’t play or losing an online game – often our sympathy is much reduced, because the causes seem trivial.
This is normal. Personally I find it really hard to empathise with my child when he misses out on getting the Pokemon card he wants, especially when I’ve just asked him to pack away the other 500 thousand he appears to have and enjoys strewing from one end of house to other. As he tearily tells me about how powerful Jhuisola** is and how much he wants him, every fiber of my being is tempted to shout “REALLY?????” and to invoke the dreaded “children in third world have no toys argument”
But I resist***. Because because I know that feeling bad is feeling bad. Whether it is caused by what appears to us to be a “reasonable” trigger or not – the same neurological and emotional processes occur. Young people are experiencing just as much distress as an adult - regardless of the triviality of the trigger.
3. The “Buck up/Snap out of it” approach is rarely helpful – and sometimes is harmful
In the busy-ness of life, it feels like we don’t have time for our kids to be miserable about getting a black drink bottle instead of a red one. So we give them messages like – “cheer up”, “get over it” to save time and get things back on track. We also give these messages because we don't want our kids to be "soft" and we are worried we will make kids less resilient by telling them to get over it. Also - there is a "social pressure" in many parent circles which is disapproving of "soft" parents and this makes parents uncomfortable with anything other than "buck up".
Unfortunately, in my experience - telling kids to "get over it" rarely works.
And in some cases it makes things worse. If we repeatedly minimise, ignore and trivailise kids' and tee suffering, they are in danger of getting these messages from us:
"I don’t have time for you”.
"It's not okay to be upset"
"You are silly/wrong for feeling like this"
Not suprisingly, these messages are not helpful. Research is starting to pile up to tell us that children and teens who get these messages in their younger years have a greater number of mental and emotional health issues as adults.
Instead, when children or teens express distress - we should empathise with them. This does not mean an over the top, dramatic and anxious reaction by parents which blows pain up. It is simply calm sentences such as:
“Hey I’m sorry you went through that”
“That sounds really annoying”
“Oh no, what a pain”
“Sorry that you feel upset about that”
“I’d be really disappointed about that if that was me too”
4. On the other hand – we don’t need to sit in misery with them for hours
The flip side of this coin is also important. Some parents I’ve worked with will sit and discuss a troubling issue with the young person for hours and hours. They will empathise, and analyse and listen without any boundaries for themselves. This is exhausting and unhelpful for both parent and teen alike. It’s okay to put some limits around how much a teen talks to us about their worry, frustration, disappointment and sadness.
5. Part of our job as parents is to help kids and teens find ways to help them improve their mood
Kids and teens need coaching in how to manage these negative moods which are descending upon them. They cant manage them on their own – and they need ideas, strategies, reminders and gentle encouragement to put them in place. Talk with young people about what helps them feel better. Get them to write a list of coping strategies and save it on their phone. Talk about what helps you when you are in a “bad mood”. Get them to notice the links between their mood and sleep, exercise and diet.
6. It’s okay to ask for the positives
Often preteens and teens are quite optimistic and positive during the day and with others – but being around a parent might automatically prompt them to remember and think about the stuff they are unhappy about. In this case, in order for a parent to look after their own well being, it is quite reasonable to ask young people to tell you about some of the positives. Let them know that for your sake, you need to hear some of the things they are happy about. Come up with a “gratitude” exercise that everyone (parents, kids, teens) engages in. Make habits so that family members tell each other about the good and the bad about the day.
7. Be on the look out for long periods of bad mood – and think about getting outside help
We know that at least 30% of teens will experience more serious mental and emotional health struggles through their adolescence. If a child or teen seems persistently down, worried and frustrated about many issues – it may be useful to get some outside help from a school counsellor, GP or psychologist.
** I've made this completely up. But it should absolutely be a pokemon name.
*** Okay, not always. Mostly.
If your young person is being miserable with and around you more often than you’d like – try to take solace in the fact this means they trust you. They feel safe enough to let you hear their pain. Not all kids/teens can do this. Also take time to look after yourself. It’s hard – sad, disappointing, worrying – to be with your child when they are suffering. Be kind to yourself first – and then it’s easier to be kind to your child.
Our "When Life Sucks for Kids" book as well as our "When Life Sucks for Teens" books both have chapters called "I feel down sometimes" and "I can't stop worrying". These might be useful for the children or teens in your life. Click here for information.