Puberty's emotional rollercoasters are a gift!  How to use them to help your child become emotionally intelligent

Did you know that moodiness in puberty is a normal, IMPORTANT phase of development?

  I know it doesn't always feel great, being on either side of it!  However, when we have the knowledge of what exactly is going on, specifically in the child's brain during this time we can see the moodiness for what it is; a time to teach them to name and express emotions, so that one day they may become emotionally intelligent and expressive adults.  

Did I mention it isn't always easy! 

My daughter woke up a few weeks ago in one of those spaces that I know is tricky at best to navigate.  Eventually she erupted and as her volcanic lava burst onto the scene I knew that being on time to school wasn't going to happen.  I had a meeting and wasn't happy about letting go of my own life to be there to cool her lava.  I took a break to express my own emotions productively and make plans for how my day could continue to honor both of our needs.  After I was able to let go of my own stuff and center, here is what I remembered.  Her brain is going through RAPID change as is her body.  She is already sensitive and so emotionally aware and puberty is reeking havoc in there.  The emotional powerhouse in her brain is all lite up and the part of her brain that helps regulate it is not going to come online for a few more YEARS! 

How's that for evolution, we get to feel the emotions intensely but we don't have regulation yet. 

This is where we come in as parents, we help children navigate their emotional rollercoasters.  We hold space for them and provide a grounding presence to the sometimes seeming insanity inside.  When we do this they learn that it is okay and safe to express their emotions.  In that safety we can then move on to teach them how and where to let their expressions out in a way that they don't emotionally endanger themselves or others.  

I do not always succeed at being patient in the lava flow but when I am, when I really can slow it down and see her, big leaps happen.  

The Science Behind the Ride

So often discussions around puberty are focused on the outward body changes.  This is what the children learn in their health course and it's the theme of the majority of the conversations that adults have with children about puberty.  However, there is SO MUCH more going on during this transition time!  One of the ways to deepen our understanding about puberty is to learn about what is going on in the BRAIN.  Understanding THIS helps us get, navigate and offer tools for children.  It helps provide the CONNECTION that children need because we now GET it on a whole new level. 

So follow me along here for a very basic science lesson.  

The limbic system (which is the part of the brain that is responsible for emotional and feeling development) develops really early on in puberty.  It gives children access to all sorts of new emotions and very quickly.  Of course we all know that their hormones are also in MAJOR flux, while their body is figuring out the balance. Not to mention that the child is experiencing these hormones for the VERY FIRST time.  Then add in the fact that the brain growth is rapidly increasing for independent thought, so that they can practice making their own choices and with that a whole new level of body consciousness comes in. 

It is no wonder that all of this creates a perfect storm for emotional rollercoasters. 

The final and most important piece of the puzzle is this; the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates a person's response to their emotions, doesn't develop until later on in life.  So your daughter is feeling really strong emotions, trying to be more independent, feeling a bit out of control and that's because she doesn't actually have the capability to control them!  Obviously telling her to stop being so emotional or calling her dramatic, well it's just not helpful.

Maybe this all is happening for a reason.  In this big stage of emotional development for young people, maybe we are meant to show up for them in big ways as the next phase of our relationship with them begins.  The phase where we get to have a much more interactive role.  Where they are practicing making their own decision; practicing being more adult like in the safety net of their own home.  There body is having these emotional storms and if we are able to help them during this time, it may be a key to unlocking children that are emotionally intelligent and expressive.  Gone are the days where we all need to hold our emotions in, stuff them down and focus only on the good.  It's time for us to help our children name and identify emotions,  feel them, "make friends" with them, and help them with expression.

So what the heck does help?  How can we all thrive in the emotional rollercoasters?

We need to help them learn how to first identify their emotions, and then express their emotions in productive ways.  Here are some ideas on how to do this.

1. Start helping them become emotionally literate.  There are so many ways to do this.  One suggestion is to come up with an extensive list of emotions and then at the dinner table choose one and ask the family if they have ever experienced this emotion and to describe when and how.  Of course having the adults go first will help them identify emotions that they are not familiar with.  Another way is to simply begin to have discussions about different emotions; begin to talk about the large variety of emotions, more than just happy, sad, angry and give examples.  Talking to your daughter about her ability to name emotions helps her then feel and express them so they don't take hold.  I have found the audio, Still Quiet Place by Amy Saltzman great for younger girls to help identify emotions; call them by a name and a place in their body that they feel the emotion.   

2.  Give them a journal.  Journaling is an useful tool to both get emotions out and then in later years they will be able to begin to process their emotions in this way.

3.  Help them find their natural expression:  talking, singing, dancing, hitting a punching bag, meditating, stretching, running.......you get the idea.  Some way to move their emotional energy out.

4.  Additional Tools:  Centering tools like essential oils or different herbs (passionflower, chamomile, lemon balm, lavender) to help calm their body.

Teaching tweens/teens how to identify their emotions, accept them and express them is one of the MAJOR works and lessons of puberty!  It gives meaning to the emotional rollercoaster.  

You are there to be their guide during this transition process.