It was 7:56 a.m. and we were four minutes from needing to be out the door if my teenage sons wanted to be on time for their job as camp counselors. One teenage son was ready and rapidly growing impatient with his brother.
“DUDE! You’re gonna make us late!”
“MOMMMMM helppp! I can’t find my work ID and lanyard. HELP! HELP MOM!” the late son frantically screamed from his bedroom.
I know the feeling of having lost something when you always put it where it should go; it totally stinks! So I knew that now was not the time for a lesson in making sure that you’re ready the night before; that would be far from helpful.He didn’t need a lesson, he needed my support (just like I would have if I had misplaced my keys.)
I headed to his room to help him and ease the growing anxiety among his three very irritated brothers.
“MOMMMM! You aren’t listening!” My teenager roared at me (and roaring is being kind) as I looked around his room. He had explained to me in a less than patient and kind manner where he left his lanyard. Except, the problem was, it clearly wasn’t there.
I explained back in a more than patient and kind manner that perhaps it was in his backpack already, suggesting that sometimes we are on auto-pilot in the morning and just put things where they need to go to get ready. He refused to look.
What I Heard Loud and Clear
“NO! I told you already it isn’t there. You aren’t listening to me!”
I actually was. What I heard loud and clear was a very frustrated teenager who wasn’t in a place yet to open his mind to new possibilities. He was stuck. Paralyzed with frustration and fear of getting in trouble for not having his work ID. My talking was not going to move us forward. His talking and growing rudeness was definitely not going to move us forward. My leaving the room, however, was.
“Dude, I don’t like how you’re talking to me. I’m going to leave now. Let me know when you’re in a place to listen to me so I can better help you because I really do want to.” And with that I walked out and he continued to yell at me in pure frustration as I walked away.
Another Teenage Blow-Up with a More Positive Ending
It would be lovely if that were the only tense run-in I had with one of my four teenagers. But it wasn’t. Another one comes to my mind. This one though, had a more positive ending.
It was a beautifully sunny day out, uncharacteristically warm for winter. It put me in such a good mood. And then, well, then my teenage son hopped into the car and his not-so-pleasant mood took over.
Lately, I feel like I can’t do or say anything right by him. Everything I say and do is met with snappiness and snarkiness. So when he got in the car and I sensed his energy, I tried not to talk too much. But…I had things to discuss, so I aimed for a brief-as-can-be conversation.
Unfortunately, seeing as we were in the mini-van, I couldn’t even take a break and walk away when things got heated. Yes, yes I could have just kept my mouth shut and not engaged in further conversation, but it can be really hard to do when the person frustrating you is right there next to you, and you just want to say one more thing!
And it can be even harder to remain quiet when the person frustrating you can’t help themselves and says one more thing to you even after you have stated that you are going to remain quiet. Sooo hard to not engage and take the bait!
A Tense Ride
So it went for a 20-minute car ride. Me trying really hard to be quiet, my son having no issue whatsoever responding nastily to anything I said. It was swell.
And then, interestingly enough, my teenager trusted me enough to tell me something he knew would upset me.
I responded, thinking it was okay since he had just opened up? Apparently, based on my son’s body language, that was the wrong move, so I quickly reminded myself to “listen, don’t lecture.” Too late.
My teenager gave me a bit of an attitude about my not listening at first and said, “see, I knew you would respond that way.” The following entirely one-way conversation frustrated the heck out of me. I am human and his words felt beyond a little personal.
With tears forming in my eyes, I finally responded back with, “I think it’s best for the both of us if I legitimately remain quiet for the rest of the car ride. Let’s take a break.”
That just got him going even more, with things that felt even more personal to me. I finally said, “You know, lately it feels like you’re just always annoyed with me. It’s a real bummer.” Right statement, right time? Don’t know. His response though? Phenomenally useful.
He replied in as irritable as irritable-can-be voice, which by the way he claimed wasn’t an irritable voice (okay, whatever),
“MOM, it isn’t personal. Did you ever think that I am not annoyed with you but that I am annoyed with how MY day went? That I am irritable because of all the crap that happened to me today?”
Sadly, the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind.
My teenagers are human, just like me.
Two different teenagers. Two different days. Two different experiences. But the same takeaway:
My teenagers are human, just like me, and there is a strong chance they will have some of the same experiences in stressful situations and the same responses afterward that I do on occasion. Because they too, like me are not, nor should be, perfect.
And this is the number one insight I use to help me from taking my teenagers’ yelling moments personally and triggering me to yell right back.
My teenagers are human like me and will…
- Have bad days filled with bad interactions with friends or teachers, or bad tests, and this can lead to bad moods that have nothing to do with me
- Lose things, even when they plan ahead and normally don’t, just like I do, and feel anxious and perhaps angry at themselves too,
- Oversleep and wake up frantic and cranky and yelling at everyone because they are in a panic,
- Be hangry and exhausted and overwhelmed somedays because it happens to all of us
- Yell sometimes because they are still learning how to manage frustration
Does my saying that they are human like me mean that I accept their yelling at me?
Does it mean that I don’t tell them later that I don’t like being yelled at? That there are better ways?
But what it does do, is help me to pause and think, “if this is a behavior I and many other humans might do when stressed or struggling, then it is more normal, than personal. This isn’t all about me.” In other words, I say to myself this little saying that popped into my head one tense afternoon,
“Normalize It, Don’t Personalize It.”
Normalize it, don’t personalize it. The saying is instantly grounding and takes me from my worked-up, personally triggered thinking that it is all about me to a more empathetic, compassionate place.
Coming from a place of compassion keeps me from escalating and adding to a tense mood. It gives me a chance instead to de-escalate the situation. Compassion leads to less major explosive blowouts and more connected moments later on that allow us to together, talk about better ways to respond to and communicate stress.
Coming from compassion keeps us more connected overall and having the kind of loving relationships I know I want, and I am pretty sure my kids want too.
Again, we are all human. We all crave loving relationships.
Alissa Zorn is an author, and founder of the website Overthought This. She's a coach and cartoonist passionate about helping people overcome perfectionism and shame to build authentic, joyful lives. Alissa is certified through the International Coach Federation and got her Trauma-Informed Coaching certification from Moving the Human Spirit. She wrote Bounceback Parenting: A Field Guide for Creating Connection, Not Perfection, and is always following curiosity to find her next creative endeavor.