I hear it from parents all the time.
“After an emotional freak-out, she stomps off to her room, dramatically slams the door and melts into hot, angry tears. Then a little while later she comes out and acts like nothing happened.”
You may notice this behavior occasionally flaring up in your pre-teen/teen daughter. When it happens, it likely catches everyone off-guard as they stand in the smoldering emotional coals with the question: WHAT JUST HAPPENED? Then a little while later, she re-enters the family scene with no acknowledgment of what took place, while you are still brushing the ashes off your shoulders.
I call this an emotional flare. If you are anywhere in the vicinity of an emotional flare, you are at risk of being singed.
When I talk with girls about this behavior they are quick to talk about it and are equally stumped as to what is going on. These are not planned events…oh no. They literally “flare up” at unpredictable and awkward moments. The experience is broken down by girls I talk to like this:
“Literally, I am fine one minute and the next I feel like I am possessed by something weird. Most times when it happens I have no memory of what I said or what happened.”
“Most times when I freak out I like, can’t remember what it was about. And when my mom wants to talk about it I literally can’t and she gets mad at me.”
“Sometimes my family looks at me like I am nuts. And sometimes I feel like I am nuts. Am I nuts?”
“It can be pretty embarrassing because I never know when it is going to happen. I just want to forget about it ever happening.”
These are not proud moments for girls. They tell me they typically feel out of control, embarrassed, and humiliated. They find huge relief in realizing that they are not alone when we discuss emotional flares, and they immediately identify with the name. “YES!” they shriek. “That is totally what it feels like!” They are quick to empathize with each other what they feel after an emotional flare.
I remain quiet as they passionately share their emotional flare stories- girls leaning into the circle, nodding in agreement and finishing each other’s sentences. I can feel the collective sigh in the room when, on some level, they acknowledge they are not the only one experiencing these powerful surges of emotion. Sweet, communal relief.
Inevitably one girl will then say “And my family doesn’t know what to do with me after it happens.” They then share the guilt they feel in not being able to speak to their sudden emotional outburst once asked to explain their behavior.
“I feel bad for my mom. She wants to help and she thinks talking about it will make it better, but it only makes it worse.”
What is going on?
Most people blame hormones. Sure. These chemical messengers are pulsing throughout the pre-teen/teen body contributing to their sometimes erratic and confusing behavior. But hormones are not the fuel for the fire, so to speak. It is what is happening within her brain.
At the onset of puberty, your girl’s brain suddenly begins growing after years of latency. Basically, her growing brain becomes a construction zone as unused neural pathways disappear and the pathways being used get stronger. This growth and pathway refining process creates chaos in the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. And guess what this part of the brain is in charge of…emotional control. The emotional center of this part of the brain, called the amygdala, is on hyper-alert. Have you noticed?
The prefrontal cortex is also responsible for impulse control, decision making, and self-control. Oh great. While under construction this control center does not work very well. As a matter of fact, ‘control’ is not what is happening- all hell is breaking loose!
The last time her brain experienced this much growth and change was when she was safely enclosed within the womb. However, this time, she is walking around and expected to function and show up in life while “under construction”. Trust me, girls frequently tell me they wish they could “hide” or “disappear” when they feel out of control of their emotions. They do not like emotionally exposing themselves in this way but feel no control over these flare-ups.
“When I can spend some time alone I can usually pull myself together.”
What should you do when your girl tosses an emotional flare into the room?
You really can’t put out a flare. You know, the road-flare kind of flare? They have to burn themselves out. Same with your girl’s emotional flare. Let it burn. If at all possible, let her burn it down in private. If that isn’t possible, get out of the way. Be sure that other family members remove themselves as well, or they could get burned. Whatever you do DO NOT TRY TO PICK UP A BURNING FLARE! In other words, disengage, be quiet, and be patient. Don’t take this behavior personally…this isn’t about you.
Give her the space to cool off and pull herself back together.
When she does re-enter I am going to ask you to do the thing you may be the farthest away from wanting to do: empathize with her. Rather than ask her to explain her behavior (because she can’t) or ask her any questions, put words to her emotional experience for her. You could say:
“You were feeling a lot there. I get it. Would you like a hug?”
“Isn’t it amazing how that surge of feelings can erupt? I can remember that happening to me when I was your age.”
“When that would happen to me at your age, my parents would freak out. I know now that doesn’t help.”
Then, be quiet. Give her the space to respond if she is ready- without being pushed into the conversation. If she doesn’t respond, leave it for now. Try again later that day or the next day. Continue to create neutral openings for her to engage. This lets her know that you are open AND this is going to be discussed.
When the conversation begins, be curious. Gently ask questions about how she feels about what happened, not about what actually happened.
You know what happened. She experienced an emotional flare. Helping her bring awareness to her feelings around the experience lets her know you care about her and support her. Be a good listener without trying to fix anything. Let her talk. When she sees that you really are hearing her, then it can be your turn to share. You could say:
“When you have an emotional flare, it is hard for us to know what to do.”
“It can be scary for your little brother when your emotions show up that way.”
“The things you say when you are upset can hurt me. That is the reason I choose to leave the room.”
You want to unemotionally inform her about her behavior. If you are still feeling emotionally burned from her flare up, take the time you need to be completely clear of your feelings from the event before you engage with her. If you are still simmering in your emotions, the whole situation could burst into flames again and that isn’t productive, it is reactive.
The point is not to guilt her, but to help her be aware of the effects of her behavior at times. This kind of emotionally clear sharing may even allow her to offer an apology. Remember, she is desperately trying to figure out what is happening to her and needs your support and patience.
In closing the conversation let her matter-of-factly know what the plan is for the next time an emotional flare is set:
- If necessary, people will remove themselves
- The opportunity for her to take some space will be there, if possible
- A supportive conversation about her emotional experience will take place at some point
You can’t predict when an emotional flare will happen for your girl. They will continue to happen throughout puberty and some will be more intense for some girls than others. The good news is that you now know how to handle them which will benefit you, your family and most importantly, your girl.