It's a common belief. Being strong means not showing emotions, pain or vulnerability. In reality the habit of bottling up feelings tends to be based on fear of what might happen if you let the feelings out. For teenagers who do not have much experience in managing unpleasant or painful feelings this can be particularly difficult. Further complicating the situation, teenagers can be going through a phase where they believe that their reactions are being very closely watched and judged by everyone and they can feel intense self-consciousness, making it even more difficult to take the chance of trying to express their feelings. Teenagers may also not have been exposed to the rationale of expressing feelings. Parents can be very helpful in addressing this unhealthy state and there are several things they can do to teach their teenagers the value of opening up.
It can be important for parents to review how they may have contributed to their teenager's tendency to bottle emotions up. Being honest with your teenager about these and apologizing when appropriate can make your teenager feel a lot better about opening up. Some common ways parents unintentionally contribute to bottling up feelings are:
1. Trying to convince your teenager that they should not be feeling a particular emotion or that some emotions are wrong.
2. Getting angry at teenagers for feelings certain things or giving them the cold shoulder when certain feelings come up.
3. Dismissing certain feelings as unimportant.
4. Telling teenagers that their feelings are too intense or that they are being dramatic when they express pain.
5. Trying to solve the problem instead of allowing them to share their feelings and trying to understand.
6. Telling them directly to be strong (meaning do not show your feelings).
Every parent sometimes makes the mistakes listed above, or says these things at the wrong time. Being honest about your mistakes can have a great breaking-the-ice effect and make talking about feeling much easier.
It's helpful to remind yourself as parents that emotions are not decisions. They are involuntary reactions and in that way they are never "wrong". The appropriate way to deal with emotions is to see them as being entitled to full expression followed by attempts to make sense of them. Treating emotions in this way will allow them to take their course, be processed and contribute to the emotional maturity and intelligence of your teenager. This is a much healthier approach than bottling emotions up and raising the risk of an explosive and unhelpful release when they can't take it anymore.
It may also be very helpful to talk to teenagers about their fears regarding opening up. These tend to be fears related to feeling weak, being judged, being attacked, or a lack of trust. There may be a lot of work to do surrounding trust before your teenager feels able to share certain things with you. Gently reassuring them that you will do your best to treat them well when they express their feelings can be enough to get the ball rolling as well as asking them directly to trust you. There is also a lot of value in being able to respectfully wait and earn their trust if they are not ready to give it right now. Explaining that real strength is not in avoiding powerful emotions but in facing them might also help.
When speaking to your teenager about opening up emotionally it is also very helpful to remind them that sometimes they are right to put their feelings on hold and that it does reflect a strength they have, but that there is also a time and place to express and understand emotions and that doing so is essential for their own mental health. Tell them that you as a loving parent would like them to feel comfortable sharing their emotional lives with you and that when you are interested in making time for them to do that.
While it can be clear to parents that their teenagers are having trouble expressing their emotions it is useful to pay attention to certain signs that this is happening.
1. Their facial expression does not match what they are telling you.
If your teenager is crying or frowning and telling you that they are fine they may be making a strong effort to bottle up their feelings and avoid the painful task of expressing them. Gently calling them out and encouraging them to share can be very helpful in these situations. Let them know that they do not have to hide their feelings from you and that you want to understand what they are going through. If you have been able to help your teenager cry and share what is upsetting them your only task is to try to understand them and offer tender emotional support. Trust me this can be enough!
2. If your teenager almost never shares feelings of sadness, pain, hurt, disappointment.
Even for the most well adjusted and psychologically healthy people there's no avoiding psychological pain. Mental health is not characterized by an absence of psychological pain it is characterized by the presence of strong and effective ways of managing that pain. Nobody is happy all the time. So if this is how your teenager is telling you his or her life is they may be very good and convincing people that they never struggle emotionally. It is safe to assume that there is pain there somewhere. It is possible that they may be genuinely unaware of their pain but the only other alternative is that they are having trouble expressing it and end up bottling it up. Talking to your teenager about the value of opening up and sharing feelings will let them know that when they are ready you will be there interested in helping them do that.
3. There are periodic emotionally intense explosions.
This is a clear sign that things have been building up. It is helpful to remind teenagers that they do not have to wait for the situation to become unbearable before they allow themselves to talk about it or seek emotional support. Tell them that they should take their emotions seriously when they come up and make efforts to express it and talk about. It's these seemingly small and manageable chunks of emotion that build up to produce overwhelming emotional situations.
Of course sometimes we all get in over our heads and the best most sensible advice doesn't help. If you find yourself in this spot with your teenager don't be afraid to seek profession help. Even if your teenager refuses to participate in therapy a capable therapist will be able to help you improve your ability to relate to your teenager and in time your teenager may be open to the possibility of working directly with a therapist. Having your teenager see you go to therapy and seeing things improve as a result sends a very positive message of being humble enough to get help when you need it as well as giving the message that they do not have to do it alone.