"Well, I love you."
By MARJE MONROE, Director of Wellness | February 2018
My younger brother came home from high school one day, angrily threw down his backpack, and glared at my parents. They were calmly reading the paper. My brother yelled that he hated the family and no one understood him. He stood there waiting for a response. My dad slowly closed his paper, looked up over his glasses, and replied, “Well, we love you.” My brother yelled back, “See, I knew you’d say that!” My dad simply counted under his breath as my brother stomped out, and at the count of 4, slammed his door. An hour later at dinner time, my brother was laughing and telling my parents a story from school.
That moment was perhaps the best mentoring I have ever had for working and parenting teenagers. Like my brother, teens can, at any given moment, feel overwhelming anger, sadness, anxiety, or joy. Often those emotions can come within minutes of one another. After a long day of working, it can be challenging as a parent to respond with patience and grace. Instead, a screaming teen can induce thoughtful parents to yell back, inflict some kind of punishment or get caught up in the heat of the moment. That, of course, is the least effective response.
Teens often have thoughts, feelings, and emotions they don’t understand. They often feel they don’t have control over their overwhelming feelings and, in an attempt to gain some control, they lash out at the people around them. Being a front row witness to this can be frustrating and difficult. With my own son, I have forgotten to have my father’s patience and have yelled back in frustration. In my many years working in boarding schools, I have seen dorm parents get into yelling matches with students who were out of control. Inevitably, the teen left the confrontation yelling and stating some provocative statement such as “you hate me,” or “I hate this place,” or “no one cares if I live or die”. That student would end up in my counseling office not remembering why they were angry that night. Teens often forget that they were anxious or upset. But they rarely forget when adults seem angry with them.
I think that is an important rule to remember as a parent or teacher or caring adult of teens. Teens may have no idea what happened during school, but they will remember the exact moment a teacher seemed mad at them. On the flip side, they will also remember the exact moment a teacher listened or helped them. They will remember the times when parents listened quietly and calmly and seemed to respect their need to vent. Striking a balance between allowing the angry outbursts and expecting respectful treatment can be hard.
Not long ago, while working at an all-girls school, a girl in my dorm started screaming that she hated me and hated the school. She slammed her door and screamed, “Leave me alone!” I just stood during this tirade, saying nothing. While almost every part of me wanted to go into her room and have a firm discussion, I instead followed my father’s example and sat quietly on the floor outside of her room. I sat for about 20 minutes until she cracked open the door to see outside. “Hi, are you ok?” I asked. She looked surprised and said, “Yes, sorry, I was really upset after my math test.” I said I could tell she was upset and wanted to give her space, but also wanted to make sure she was safe. “I’m on duty and around tonight if you want to talk,” I said as I got up. She responded with an “Okay, maybe later.”
The girl did talk to me later that night, and she was able to discuss her emotions and anger from the day. That moment has helped me in the intervening years with teens. I try to combine support and care while keeping an eye on safety. I don’t always get it right, but I hope in the heat of the moment when my own son is yelling and out of control, I can look up from my own computer or phone and say, “Well, I love you. And I am here for you.”