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Dr Wolf

From The Globe and Mail

Samantha was getting ready for school.

“Omigod, Mom! I left my good hairbrush at Trisha’s. Omigod.”

“That’s too bad, dear. I guess you’ll have to use one of the others in the bathroom.”

“But I can’t. I have to be ready for school in five minutes and the other brushes don’t do it right. They make my hair look all freaky. Omigod, I can’t go to school. Omigod.” “I’m sure your hair will be fine for one day.”

“Mom! Omigod!”

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Later, at the dinner table:

“Omigod, Jason, stop eating that way, it’s disgusting. Dad, you have to make him eat like a human. I can’t sit at this table with him eating like that. Dad, you have to do something.”

“Jason, try to be a little neater,” said the children’s father.

“Dad! He’s still doing it.”

Jason gave his sister a big smile.

“Omigod, I can’t stand this house. Everybody drives me crazy.” And Samantha burst into tears and left the table.

Some teenagers – certainly more of them girls than guys – seem to be at the centre of one drama after another. They appear unable to get through a day without multiple crises. Their constant complaint is about how everyone is especially inconsiderate of them, and as a result causes them great suffering. Somehow, what isn’t a big deal for others is a major disaster for them.

“Well, it’s not my fault that my feelings are more sensitive than other people’s. If people were in my body for one day they’d see what it’s like being me. It’s not my fault. People just have to be more considerate.”

Why are these teens like this?

People can have different temperaments. With some, their feelings are just volatile. They are less able to have day-to-day disruptions simply bounce off of them. But it is also true that many grow to like the role of the brave princess at the centre of the grand tragedy that is their life.

“Well, it’s true. People really don’t understand.”

They are not faking their distress. They do suffer. And they are not bad people. They can be considerate of others. The majority grow up to be nice.

The problem is that the expression of their distress can often be loud and lengthy. It can be hard to live under the same roof.

“I can feel it,” Samantha’s mother says. “As soon as she comes into the room, my blood pressure goes up.”

Unfortunately, it is easy to get caught up in the hysteria yourself.

What not to do:

Challenge or belittle them. That only fuels the fire: “Oh, for goodness sake, Samantha, just cool it. You’ll survive without your precious hairbrush.”

“See, you’re against me too. Everybody’s against me.”

Try to convince them it’s no big deal: “Samantha, just use one of the other hairbrushes, then look in the mirror. You’ll see it’s fine.”

“Omigod. You really don’t understand, do you?”

What to do:

Sympathize, genuinely. But maybe not too much.

And then disengage.

“I’m sorry you don’t have your good hairbrush.”

“But I can’t go to school without it, Mom. I can’t.”

“I’m sorry about your hairbrush.”

“Mom! You don’t understand.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Samantha, but I love you.”

And then disengage.

Maybe she will go to school and maybe she won’t. But usually she will – if you let her be.

“Fine. Whatever. I used one of the other brushes. I look like a witch. Whatever. Bye.”

And if Samantha storms from the table because of her brother’s eating habits?

Let her go.

If their drama-queen activity is not just hard to live with, but also seems to be damaging their lives – they’re becoming socially isolated and unhappy – then maybe you do need to seek some form of professional counselling.

But for most drama queens, you can’t so much change them as let them learn on their own. This happens gradually as they go out into the world. In the end, fortunately, most of them do learn – at least somewhat.

“The bad stuff that always happens to me, nobody seems to understand. I really do suffer. But they just don’t care. In fact they don’t seem to want to hear about it. I guess I have a choice. Either I can keep boring people with how I feel, or I can keep some stuff to myself.

“But maybe it’ll be okay if I tell Trisha how rude April was to me yesterday.”

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of several parenting books.