I came in to say goodnight to my then 10-year-old daughter and discovered her curled up in a ball on top of her pink polka dot duvet, sobbing. She was crying so hard that her face was red and blotchy and her eyelids were swollen. “Oh honey, what’s wrong?” I frantically asked. She looked at me wild-eyed and said — I’ll never forget it as long as I live — “I don’t know! I just can’t stop crying!” Then she started to hiccup, loud, popping hiccups, and the next minute she was laughing hysterically, tears streaming down her face for another reason. I got her a glass of water and hugged her, utterly mystified as to what I had just witnessed.
That’s just one example from my daughter’s tumultuous, teary tween years. Sometimes, the tears turned into glass-shattering screams; other times, she asked me to lie next to her on her tiny bed and hold her tightly or sing to her. There was no rhyme or reason to how things would proceed, but I was grateful when she could articulate some way I could help her, because the alternative — being powerless — was too painful for me.
But as I lay there rubbing her back or stroking her hair, I was also desperate to have some time to myself, dreaming of the glass of wine I had just poured or my new book on the coffee table. Often I was drained from a long day, needing space from my kid and time to myself. So what the hell was I supposed to do? She’d look at me, wrung out from whatever tsunami had just hit her, red eyes brimming with tears, pleading with me to stay. How could I leave her?
I knew her mood swings were just a normal part of puberty. I had plenty of experience with the hormonal roller coaster myself: Every month I hate my husband, want to change everything about my house, and am deeply disappointed in my children, for about 24 hours. Then my period starts and it all makes sense.
My poor baby girl, not even a teenager yet, was being bullied by the unpredictability of the estrogen in her body. And I then felt bullied by her. It was like a hormonal chain of command where she needed to dump her shit on someone, and I was the lucky winner. So what was I supposed to do? Leave her to deal with it on her own? Of course not. Stay in her bed until sunrise? No way. I had to find a middle ground.
I found four small ways to help my daughter — while still looking after myself.
Normalize. I needed to help my kid understand that it’s normal in the tween and teen years to have big, big feelings and not know what’s causing them. It’s really scary for kids if they’re sobbing and they don’t know why, or they’re violently angry but can’t point to a single reason. And those feelings might return years later, during pregnancy or menstruation or menopause, so we can’t demonize, we have to normalize. Our job is to help our kids understand that the chemicals in our bodies (AKA hormones) can make us feel and behave in really wacky ways, but to remember that it’s not forever, it’s just for now. And then it will pass, until the next time…
Breathe. When our kids are out of control, with sadness or anger, we need to get them to breathe because it helps their brains calm down. But if we say to our kids, “Take some deep breaths,” they will instead shoot daggers out of their eyes at us. So instead, we can do what psychologists call co-regulation: we ourselves can breathe deeply so that the breathing becomes contagious and our kids also breathe deeply.
We don’t even need to tell them what we’re doing, we just do it and hopefully they catch on. And even if they don’t, breathing will help us calm down so at least someone has it together in this hot mess of a situation.
Don’t Solve. It is so tempting as parents to try to solve our kids' sadness or anger. It’s deeply painful to see our kids hurting or confused, so our instinct is to fix it.
But here’s the problem: when the crying or shouting is the result of hormonal waves in their bodies, there is no fixing it. There’s just sitting with it. I know that’s a deeply unsatisfying answer, but it’s also true.
As our tweens move through puberty and adolescence there are going to be a lot more times when we can’t fix things, so we’d better get used to it. We can teach them to cope with it but we can’t solve it.
Set Limits. This is a big one because it involves our self-preservation. Notice I did not use the term self-care, because this shit is about survival. We need to set boundaries with our kids in terms of how much time and energy we will spend on a given day, helping them through one of these wild moments.
This is critical because the time we spend supporting them is time we don’t spend recharging our own batteries, through time alone or with a partner or a friend. And if we don’t recharge ourselves, we can’t get up tomorrow morning and go through the whole circus of parenting all over again.
It really helps to be concrete and set an amount of time you’re willing to spend with them or a number of things you’re willing to do for them, otherwise the whole exercise just turns into one long negotiation.
Setting limits sounds like: “I’m going to sit with you for 10 minutes and then I’m going to read my book. I will check on you in an hour.” (And then you have to check back in an hour.) “I will sing you two songs while I brush your hair and then I’m going to watch the next episode of my show. You choose the two songs I sing.”
And if all else fails, put on some of your favorite music and it will either: A. cheer everyone up or B. get your kid to kick you out of her room.
Vanessa Kroll Bennett is the co-host of The Puberty Podcast; the founder of Dynamo Girl, a company using sports and puberty education to empower kids; and the author of the Uncertain Parenting Newsletter, musings on raising adolescents. You can follow her on Instagram @vanessakrollbennett.