Ask Julia: dealing with difficult emotions after a crisis

4 min read

Dear Julia:

I could use help supporting my teenage daughter in dealing with difficult emotions after a crisis. For example, last summer her camp friend was cutting herself and my daughter felt she had to keep it a secret to preserve the friendship. Or the recent death of a student in a neighboring school she didn’t know, but she reacted like it was her best friend. She seems to be more emotionally charged about everything, big and small, and I’m not sure what to say or how to get her to talk to me. Any tips?

Thank you for writing about this topic; it is important, and timely. I would be remiss if I did not begin with a brief discussion about the teenage brain, which is likely playing a role in her heightened emotions. The prefrontal cortex is our motherboard for rational thinking, impulse control, and emotional regulation. Around adolescence, it goes through a rapid process of pruning and rewiring, which can limit your daughter’s ability to control and process emotions. For example, when your daughter goes from happy-go-lucky to “I can’t even” in less than three-seconds for seemingly no reason, her underdeveloped prefrontal cortex is likely the culprit. I recommend reading Laurence Steinberg’s, Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence. This is one of the best books I’ve read regarding the brain, complex emotions, and behavior of adolescents. Steinberg is insightful, witty, and a brilliant scholar.

Regarding communicating with her, take a deep breath and try to remain calm when she brings up difficult topics. Teens are notorious for testing their parents’ emotional responses to gauge what, and how much, they can share. If you freak out, they often freeze, backpedal, or shut down. Try not to ask her closed-ended or accusatory questions, i.e., “Why didn’t you tell an adult?” or “You didn’t even know him, why are you so upset?” Instead, use minimal encouragers and open-ended questions to keep her talking:
· I’m sorry that happened.
· Say more.
· This is helping me understand how you are feeling.
· You have a lot going on right now.
· This sounds like a tough situation.
· I haven’t experienced exactly what you’re dealing with, but I want to understand.
· I’m glad you can talk to me about this.
· Do you want my advice, or do you want me to listen?

Always thank her for being open, and let her know she can talk to you about these situations. If you do have a hard time keeping it together, explain that to her. Say something like: “This is tough for me to hear because I love you and want to protect you, but I want you to always be able to talk to me.” End heavy conversations with an action plan of sorts, and check in with her to see how she’s feeling.

And while you asked how to help your daughter deal with the emotional aspect of these situations, I want to address the cutting topic. In the counseling field, we break confidentiality when we believe someone is a danger to themselves or others, or if someone is hurting them. I always urge teens to do the same with their friends. If it is not an emergency situation, I encourage them to help their friend reach out to a trusted adult (a parent, school counselor, teacher, coach, etc.). Often, girls would come to me in pairs to support a friend who needed help. If it is an emergency, preserving the friendship is not as important as helping a friend get the immediate help they need, and deserve. This is tough for teens, so creating a calm, open, non-judgmental space helps if an emergency does occur.

Finally, if you feel like your daughter’s emotions are out of context, or her moods are interfering with her normal routine, I recommend seeking additional support. You can touch base with her school counselor, or look for a licensed mental health professional in your area.



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Dr. Julia V. Taylor is a Counselor Educator at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA. She is author of The Body Image Workbook for Teens,  The Bullying Workbook for Teens, Salvaging Sisterhood, G.I.R.L.S: Group Counseling Activities for Enhancing Social and Emotional Development, and a children’s book, Perfectly You.  She can be reached at

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