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Dealing with Teen Drama

A parent's role

April 2012

Talk to anybody who is around teenagers on a daily basis, and they'll likely tell you how teenage dramatic behavior is a part of everyday life. The attention-seeking, manipulative, all-or-nothing behavior is just how most teens cruise through their adolescent years.

Take Sarah Schmitt and her 17-year-old son Joshua, for example. When Josh was 13, his dramatic behavior had the Schmitt family ready to throw in the towel.

"Josh was miserable but didn't want to help himself," Sarah said. "He hated us and we didn't think very highly of him. Everything he said or did was blown out of proportion and dramatic."

Lisa Mercurio, upper school psychologist at Park Tudor School, said this overly dramatized teen behavior is normal and something she sees in her office daily. "The very nature of adolescence lends itself to a flair for the dramatic," Mercurio said.

Michelle Bowen Harden, mental health therapist at Meridian Youth Psychiatric Center, said drama can be a cry for help if teens are feeling a range of emotions they don't know how to handle – emotions like depression, anxiety or low self-esteem.

"In Josh's mind, everything was either horrible or fabulous – there was no in-between," Sarah said. "Someone would look at him wrong at school and the world was going to end. He was not rational."

"Teenagers tend to use black and white thinking – it's all or nothing," Harden said. "Ask the student, 'Is it really an all-or-nothing situation, or is it just a dramatic way of seeing things?'"

Sarah said it was easier just to let Josh do what he wanted and not ask him to be responsible for anything because if they did, Josh would lash out and become scary to be around.

"When we asked him to do the dishes, he'd stomp around, slamming doors," Sarah said. "And it was easier not to even talk to him about homework. He'd fly off the handle if I even mentioned anything about homework."

But it was during family therapy that Sarah realized it may not have just been Josh that needed to adjust his actions. "The therapist called me out on a bunch of things, like saying I was egging him on. I had forgotten that I needed to tell Josh that I still loved him and liked him as a person, even though I was mad at him."

There are many other ways parents can alleviate teenage tension at home. Harden offered this advice for parents battling a dramatic teenager: "Let the teen know they have a voice and a say without having to be dramatic. Reinforce the positive communication. Don't respond dramatically back to them. Model an appropriate reaction and set an example."

Louise Tetrick, pediatrician at Northpoint Pediatrics, suggested this: "Fast-forward the teens in their lives and get them to look at the big picture. Have them evaluate whether this dramatic situation they're in now will really matter to them then."

Mercurio said parents dealing with dramatic teens must remember to stay calm. "It's all too easy to react when teens push our buttons. Our reasoning skills can get blocked and conversations become very unproductive."

Thankfully, life with Josh has completely turned around now. Sarah attributes two things to his altered behavior. For one, they found ADHD medication that truly gives Josh the confidence he needs to succeed in school. And secondly, it was a tonsil and nasal surgery that helped Josh and his mom to see past the drama and bring them closer together.

"The surgery and recovery was so painful for him that he realized he still needed his mom to help him through, and I realized I still wanted to be his mom and help him through," Sarah said. "It brought us both down to earth to realize that love is what it's really all about."

Sarah said now Josh has dreams of getting his PHD and MD in psychology or neurology. "This is the kid that 12 months ago, we didn't think he'd be going to college," Sarah said.

Most teenagers all go through this dramatic phase. As a parent, try to remember you're not the only one who's dealing with it. Have someone to laugh with about the tough times – whether it be your spouse, sibling or friend. There's always light at the end of the tunnel.

"Teens are so narcissistic – they think they're so important and that the whole world is looking at them," Tetrick said. "They're funny like that. But don't worry – they'll grow out of it."

Tags: In This Issue, Tweens & Teens

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