Babies cry when they want food or comfort. Toddlers and preschoolers throw tantrums. Primary aged children make it very clear when they are overtired or overwhelmed. But when an adolescent has a meltdown, it can be very hard to know what to do.
The difficulty comes from hearing their anguish over real issues. They are no longer screaming because they wanted the blue cup or because their brother pinched them. When teenagers have meltdowns, they say things like: No one likes me. I don’t have any friends. I can’t go on. Nothing works out for me. I don’t know what I want to do in life. I am ugly. I am stupid. These kinds of statements are very alarming for any parent. And with teenage suicide rates being as high as they are, it’s no wonder we get worried.
The other problem can be that because teenagers are on their way to becoming adults, we sometimes try to solve their problems as we would an adult. Incidentally, an adult who is having a meltdown doesn’t need their partner to problem solve either, but let’s just focus on the teenager for now. So the adolescent is crying because they believe that they have no friends. Their parents panic and try to get to the bottom of the problem: Why not? What’s happened? What did you do? What did your friends do? Are you being bullied? Perhaps you should try to find some new friends. Why don’t you join a new group? Why don’t you invite Lara over this weekend? etc etc
If their meltdown is about feeling ugly or fat, we reassure them that they are beautiful. And if they don’t know what to do in life, we tell them that there’s plenty of time to find out. All wise words, but the words are often completely ignored by the teen.
I find that a teenager having a meltdown needs just one thing – nurturing. They need us to listen and to cuddle them if they’ll let us. They need us to run them a bath, cook their favourite meal, or brush their hair. Try suggesting you watch a DVD together and choose the movie that was their favourite when they were 8 or 10. They might resist the idea, but see how long it takes before they are smiling at the very scenes that used to make them laugh.
There’s not much point trying to problem solve your way through a teenage meltdown. Unless you notice some worrying signs of depression or anxiety, they should come around with some good old fashioned TLC. It’s also good to use any opportunity to remind them that they are and always will be your child.