How The ‘Glitter Jar’ Analogy Can Help Tweens and Teens Manage Their Emotions

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
_AlionaBloschynskaya / Getty Images

Sometimes I look at my almost-teenager and think, “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe how grown up he is. He’s finally maturing. It’s amazing to watch.” Then, in what feels like an instant, he’s morphed right into a toddler, freaking the heck out about the littlest thing. And it often feels as though there is no in between here.

You know what I’m talking about, right? It’s no joke: our tweens and teens are regular Jekyll and Hydes when it comes to emotional regulation. On the one hand, they have truly started to get their stuff together, utilizing tons more rational, adult-like thinking. At the same time, they are so quick to get upset – it almost makes us wonder if they are trying to drive us completely bonkers.

And WTF are we supposed to do when our hellions wonderful children seem to utterly collapse in emotional exhaustion – when they are just so bent out of shape that we can’t even get a word in edgewise through the sounds of their screaming and heaving sobs?

According to Lisa Damour, psychologist and author of the newly released book Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood, the answer might be a simple: NOTHING.

That’s right, Damour’s theory, which she described in an article for The New York Times, is that when tweens and teens are experiencing moments of intense emotional upheaval – the ones that resemble their good old two-year-old toddler meltdowns – rather than stepping in and trying to “fix it,” the best approach might be to do nothing at all. Instead, she suggests giving them the space to “let it all out” for a while, and wait until they are more rational and able to discuss what they are feeling.

It’s a refreshing, genius idea, in my opinion – and Damour shares a really cool analogy to help us clueless parents really get what’s going on in our tweens’ and teens’ brains, and why this approach makes sense.

The whole thing is based on the metaphor of a jar of glitter. Damour credits the idea to a counselor she met at a Dallas girls’ school a few years prior. The counselor explained that when one of the students at her school becomes “unglued” she takes out a glitter jar.

And what, you may ask, is a glitter jar? Don’t worry: it’s not going to require you to get glitter all over your carpet (sorry for the hateful image). This counselor just uses an empty jam jar and fills it with water and a little glitter. The jar then becomes something like a snow globe.

But here comes the brilliant part. When an upset student comes into her office, the counselor takes down the glitter jar, shakes it up, and then sits there patiently with the student, watching the glitter slowly settle to the bottom. That in and of itself sounds relaxing, doesn’t it?

The idea here is that a teenager’s brain is like the glitter jar. It’s easy to trigger an emotional storm in their brains – for feelings, like glitter, to swarm and swirl all over the place. Tweens and teens can’t really control their emotions fully yet. And so our best bet is to sit with them patiently as this “glitter storm” settles down.

Damour recounts that — after the counselor has shaken up the jar — she says to her student: “‘Honey, this is your brain right now. So first … let’s settle your glitter.’”

Let’s settle your glitter. I couldn’t love this more, and I’m definitely using that (for myself as well as my tween!).

Damour also shares some really fascinating, on-point info about how the adolescent brain works, and why our tweens and teens have these “glitter jar” moments so dang often. The truth is, she says, although they are maturing at really fast rates, their minds just haven’t finished baking, and really aren’t going to reach full maturity for a bunch more years.

“Early in adolescence, the brain gets remodeled to become more powerful and efficient, with this upgrade retracing the order of the original in utero development,” Damour explains. “The primitive regions, which are just above the back of the neck and house the emotion centers, are upgraded first — starting as early as age 10. The more sophisticated regions, located behind the forehead and giving us our ability to reason and maintain perspective, are redone last and may not reach full maturity until age 25.”

Age 25?! Oh my: I’m going to need to muster up some serious, rock-hard patience over the next many years. And I’ve got two boys to see through to adolescence.

Damour explains, further, that during these years of intense development, our kids are put in a “rather delicate position.” They can be rational and cool as cucumbers, on the one hand – or total emotional wrecks.

“[I]f they become upset, their new, high-octane emotional structures can overpower their yet-to-be upgraded reasoning capacities, crashing the entire system until it has a chance to reset,” says Damour.

But the thing is that all of that is normal and okay. This is not only a relief for us parents, but it can teach us how to deal with those difficult moment with our kids. Of course, the “let it work itself out” idea posed by the “glitter jar” analogy won’t work in all cases, or for all kids. But the general idea behind it definitely can.

I remember when I was a teen, the thing I needed most was for someone to totally accept my feelings – all of them – even the most difficult ones. And the idea of doing that for our tweens and teens – of holding space for them while they flip out, rather than constantly trying to step in and “fix” everything for them – is a beautiful one, in my opinion.

It’s something we could all benefit from, when you think about it, because all of us want more than anything to be accepted without condition – especially during our most tumultuous and dark moments.

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