If we are parenting an adolescent, we realize that the teen years come upon us as a second storm after the relative reprieve of the school years. Teenagers can be as changeable as toddlers, but their outbursts are more frightening, and carry more potential for real harm to self and others.
An old Scottish fairy tale called “Tam Lin” has an image in it that comes to my mind when I work with parents of teens.
“Tam Lin” tells the story a woman who meets a mysterious man named Tam Lin in the woods at night. When she learns she is pregnant with his child, she seeks him out and discovers that he is a captive of the faeries, who plan to sacrifice him as a tribute to hell. To rescue him, she must pull him from his horse as he passes by with the faeries on Halloween night. Then, she must hold him fast as he turns first into a lion, then an enormous serpent, then a blazing fire, then a scaly dragon. She must hold him firmly while he is transformed into these dreadful things, and only if she succeeds will he at last be free of the faery spell.
It turns out that this ancient fairy tale image provides an eloquent metaphor for the attitude we might take with someone who is experiencing overwhelming feelings – whether that person is our child, our partner – or ourselves.
Here’s the wisdom I glean from that image as it relates to parenting teens:
Don’t Be Reactive
The heroine in the tale just needs to hold on no matter what happens. She mustn’t be frightened or alarmed as Tam Lin shape shifts from one dangerous entity to the next.
When our teen transforms into something genuinely alarming – screaming, slamming doors, throwing things – our best bet is to be steady. It may be difficult for us to contain our own fear or anger, but doing so will allow our teen to keep the focus on himself in these moments, without having to worry about our out of control feelings as well.
Which brings me to my next point.
It’s Not About You
Say your kid who has always been a good student becomes sullen and withdrawn in adolescence and stops caring about school. Grades start to drop. The bright light that once shone has been shut off. You get to have your very personal feelings of distress, anger, and fear about this situation, but ideally you shouldn’t let her know about them.
I’m not talking about communicating to your child that you have expectations of her, that you are disappointed she is not meeting them, and that there will be consequences for not getting back on track. Of course, all of that is important. But the heartache you feel when you realize she might not be headed for a top tier school? That’s about you. And when your child is going through the violent changes of adolescence, the last thing she needs is to try and help you manage your feelings when she is having enough trouble managing hers.
Let Them Know You Got This
No matter what the issue is, when teens act out, they are feeling out of control. To the extent that we can remain firm and solid, we communicate to them that they can count on us. We can provide a place for them to have their feelings while we also contain the negative consequences of their outburst.
In this way, we give them space to come back to themselves, just like Tam Lin does in the tale.
By providing the steady container for our kids when they feel out of control, we are helping them internalize the vitally important skill of regulating their emotions.
To help our kids manage their emotions, we need to be able to manage our own. This isn’t always easy to do, especially when we live with raging lunatics teenagers. For parents who themselves struggle with anxiety, containing emotions can be especially challenging. Remembering to be calm and steady with ourselves can help us do the same for our children.