Teens, Upset and Emotional Redirection

Having a 13yo is always an adventure in parenting, as children this age are just hitting adolescence so they can be all over the place with their emotions. Heck, I’m pretty sure that they can have emotional responses to external stimuli that are completely random and a surprise even to them. Parents of teens know what I’m talking about, where there are tears and screaming over something as incredibly trivial as how much you filled up their glass of water or whether they can skip homework and go to a party.

I mean, jeez.

The other thing I’ve learned this third time through the adventure of parenting teens is that there’s a lot of what I call emotional redirection, where they want to have a reaction to someone or something in their life but don’t feel it’s okay, so instead they unleash all that energy on you, the hapless parent. Key survival skill: don’t automatically assume that their upset is actually your fault, give it some time to dissipate instead. Escalation no bueno!

boulder public library teen space

Yesterday K- met with a few of her classmates for a team project, always a dicey proposition. I knew things were tenuous when we walked into the Boulder Public Library teen space and her two partners were deep in an animated game of Magic the Gathering. That’s somewhat of an obsession with most of the boys in her class and without a parent to say otherwise, I figured it’d be hard for them to stop and switch focus onto the class project.

Sure enough, 90min+ later when K- called it quits and said she was ready to leave I could see she was not particularly happy. Further inquiry revealed – surprise! – that in her opinion the two boys had done nothing and had been playing and on their devices without any attention paid to the actual project. I encouraged her to talk to the class teacher as there was no way I was going to get in the middle of things – nor would it be appropriate for me to do so. She wasn’t enthused, and fatigue was contributing to her getting very quiet.

Until we popped into Whole Foods on the way home to grab some foods. By this point I was tired too, and was ready to get home and relax for a bit. I grabbed some food, met her by the massive deli area and she judged that one of the things I had picked up wasn’t her favorite and she didn’t want to eat it. Okay, I put it down on the counter and said “I’m too unmotivated and will let one of the stockers here put it back on the shelf.”

whole foods boulder

Much to my surprise, she got quite upset about this and pushed me on the decision I’d made. I finally said “if you are that passionate about it, you are totally welcome to put it back on the shelf.” and she did.

Here’s where the emotional redirection came in: Because she had no outlet for her frustration with her teammates, my tiny bit of laziness became A. Really. Big. Deal. To the point where she was actually yelling at me when we got home and then holed up in her room for many hours, even rejecting our original plan to work together on her math homework.

Finally, a few hours later she’d cooled down and we did end up working on some of her homework, but it would have been really easy for me to have internalized all her emotional energy and feel quite recalcitrant about my behavior. But it was never about me, never about Whole Foods, never about a box of Mac and Cheese that I was too lazy to reshelf.

Now, how many times when your son or daughter are raging at you or are giving you the cold shoulder are they really just using you as an emotional outlet for their pent up frustrations and disappointments of the day? And how are you dealing with it when that does happen?

Obligatory disclaimer: This is probably the first time in my life I haven’t dutifully trudged back and reshelved something I didn’t want to buy at the supermarket. Which makes the whole experience a bit ironic, perhaps.

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