angryteengirlI can still recall one of my more memorable adolescent meltdowns, even though I don’t remember what I was upset about. I was about thirteen, and I was yelling and crying and for some reason lying on a pile of laundry in our bathroom. My mother did something wise- she disengaged and left the room- and I sobbed into a pile of T-shirts until I calmed down. Then I was so embarrassed I avoided her like the plague for the next few days.

Most teens, at some point in their life, will have a complete meltdown over something that is, in the long run, not a huge deal. Something like losing their Twitter access for two weeks, getting into an argument with a friend, or having trip plans canceled can put them into a tailspin.

I’m not talking, for the purposes of this post, about teens that cause physical or property damage- that can be a larger issue, and may be outside of the spectrum of normal. I’m talking about screaming, crying, stomping, slamming doors, and the like. It doesn’t necessarily injure anyone, but it can be hard to take. 

Recently, I had the opportunity to see a lecture by Laura Kastner, a psychologist who specializes in work with adolescents and families. She had a term I liked for adolescent meltdowns: an “amygdala hijack.” (This term was coined by Daniel Goleman, who also brought us the term “emotional intelligence”).

The amygdala is a region of the brain involved in the “fight or flight” response. While most of us have seen grown adults have a toddler-worthy meltdown, it’s rare; on the whole, we manage to restrain ourselves. This is because we have a nice, big prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex has many functions, but an important one is to stop us from instinctive emotional reactions. It uses reason, logic, and judgment to allow us to control our behavior.

Let’s say I’m in Trader Joe’s, heading for my favorite candy bar, and someone swoops in and gets the last one. That might make me angry, but I don’t punch them in the face. That’s my prefrontal cortex working.

Of course, most adolescents wouldn’t punch anyone either, and even preschool children can often refrain from lashing out. They have prefrontal cortexes, too. Our prefrontal cortex develops as we do – but we only reach adult prefrontal cortex capacity when our brains become adult (it’s later than you think.)

Overall, adolescents have less prefrontal cortex power than we do. They also have a lower threshold for irritation, and their fight-or-flight response is more sensitive than ours. This can all add up to an epic meltdown. They’re not trying to make you crazy, they’re not abnormal, and they’re not going to grow up and punch people over candy bars. They’re just dealing with a brain that has too much emotional fuel and too little brakes.

So how do you deal with it? Here’s some tips:

1. There’s a difference between a teen meltdown and a rage that risks people and property. If your teen scares you, seek help. Your primary care provider, school counselor, or another mental health professional can guide you on this. If you’re scared for your or someone else’s safety in the short-term, call the police.

2. If #1 doesn’t apply, leave your teen to settle down by themselves. There is nothing you can do or say to stop a meltdown in its tracks, but it will wind down on its own.

3. Teens can be embarrassed afterwards, and not want to talk about it. After a few hours or a day of calm, seek them out to talk about it rationally. Find out if you can help- both for what set them off and to prevent outbursts in the future.

4. Adults don’t tend to have meltdowns the same way as teens do, but they do lose their temper. If you lose your temper in front of, or at, your teen, come back and apologize later. Explain that you let your emotions get the best of you, and you feel bad in retrospect. You’re setting a great example for your teen to follow- both now and in adulthood.

What do you if your teen loses it? What did your parent(s) do, and was it helpful?