Tweens and teens with poor emotion regulation skills do not throw tantrums or have meltdowns like 5-year-olds would. Instead, they lash out in more destructive ways. When they strike, they are often out for blood: They say the things that will hurt the most, engage in risky behavior, and sometimes are verbally or even physically aggressive.
We now know that aggressive displays and postures are often driven by anger in younger and older children alike.
We also know that certain short-term management strategies, such as visualization exercises, are great at helping young kids learn to regulate their emotions. One such exercise is asking young kids to imagine that they have a balloon in their belly that they can slowly inflate and deflate, which slows their breathing and in the process, calms them.
But what of teens for whom some of these approaches may be ineffective? Is it too late for them, or can they still be taught to reinforce their emotion regulation skills? Science says that they can.
Emotions in tweens and teens
For many teenagers, this period in their life often feels like an emotional roller coaster, and there are many reasons for this:
- Everyone knows about the fluctuations in estrogen and testosterone levels during the adolescent years and how these changes affect teenagers’ moods. Hormonal changes mean that mood swings are common among kids this age, as are extreme reactions to what others may view as “normal situations.”
- Teenagers want to be liked by their peers or they want to belong to a certain group, meaning that they are more likely to experience stress in their attempt to fit in. Researchers say that when people experience high levels of stress or feel upset, they are more likely to act impulsively in an attempt to make themselves feel better. They are also more likely to prioritize short-term soothing (e.g., eating fattening snacks or engaging in sexual activity) over other self-regulating strategies.
- Social media has changed what it means to be a teen today compared to the experience of being a teen for past generations. Teenagers have easier access to negative content, and there is also more social comparison, which can have a negative impact on their well-being. Social media is also affecting their exercise and sleep routines, making it harder for them to deal with emotion-provoking situations.
- The family environment plays an important role in determining whether teenagers succeed in developing emotion regulation skills. If teenagers feel overly criticized, victimized or unsupported, they may find it difficult to regulate their emotions.
Several researchers have found that teaching emotion regulation skills to adolescents can help them feel better and act better. It can improve their mental health, decrease anxiety and depression, lead to more fulfilling family and social relationships, increase self-esteem, improve academic performance and reduce risky behavior.
Steps to help teens manage their emotions
1. Teach emotion regulation skills. Teaching your teenager to recognize their emotions and those of others, helping them to learn to identify their triggers, and guiding them to identify appropriate coping mechanisms for emotion-provoking situations are the most effective ways to strengthen their emotion regulation skills.
The emotion regulation process model developed by researchers explains that most people respond to difficult emotions by:
- Identifying emotion-evoking situations and avoiding them when possible (situation selection).
- Consciously deciding how to deal with a situation in order to reduce its emotional impact (situation modification).
- Refocusing attention within an emotionally charged situation (attentional deployment).
- Viewing a given situation in a different way to reduce its emotional impact (cognitive change).
- Changing emotional responses after activation to alter the experimental, behavioral or physiological elements of an emotional response (response modulation).
Understanding the emotion regulation process model is particularly helpful for teenagers, who often act in ways that cause them distress when trying to fit in. Knowing about this model can help them develop important strategies to deal with emotion-provoking situations, such as:
- Avoiding situations or friends who are mean, critical or hurtful, or reducing the amount of time spent with them.
- Avoiding certain topics.
- Choosing to focus their attention on positive things or to ignore negative triggers.
- Coming up with strategies to make emotion-provoking situations more manageable; for example, by going to difficult events with a friend.
- Deciding to focus on enjoying oneself rather than on negative triggers, as in situations like attending a party.
- Changing how they view emotion-provoking situations; that is, looking at things from a different perspective rather than seeing everything as an attack.
- Altering how they react to their own emotions; for example, by thinking things over, journaling, talking to a friend or a parent, waiting before they respond, working out, drawing, among other choices.
2. Introduce your teenager to mindfulness. In a study seeking to determine the link between adolescents’ mindfulness and their emotional well-being, researchers assessed mindfulness, emotion regulation and psychological distress among 1,067 adolescents. They found that the teenagers who engaged in mindfulness suffered from fewer episodes of depression, anxiety and stress.
Many mindfulness exercises exist, and it is important to help your child explore different ways of focusing on one thing at a time (guided meditations, body scans, deep breathing) in order to choose which approach works best for them.
That said, mindfulness is a skill that takes time to develop. The good news is that there are great mindfulness apps out there, such as Headspace, Three Good Things and Happy Not Perfect to help introduce your teenager to this practice.
3. Make emotion regulation a family affair. When it comes to dealing with adolescents, it is important not to “preach water and drink wine.” If your teen sees you reacting violently, they will come to believe that their violent behavior is justified.
Incorporating mindfulness and gratitude activities into your daily life is an easy way to promote mindfulness. For example, every night before you begin eating dinner, ask every family member to share one thing for which they were grateful that day.
4. Encourage your teen to participate in extracurricular activities. Extracurricular activities are an effective way to help your teenager focus on activities that make them feel good. Creative activities such as painting or drawing can help them learn to express their emotions in different ways.
5. Encourage your child to engage in regular physical activity. Regular physical activity can help adolescents deal with their emotions more effectively. Exercise boosts the body’s endorphins (“feel-good hormones”) and therefore helps to reduce stress, anxiety and depression. It also improves sleep quality and helps boost self-esteem.
While all emotions are valid, not all reactions to one’s emotions are acceptable. When teaching emotion regulation skills to teens, it is important to set clear definitions of acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and to apply appropriate consequences any time unacceptable behavior is displayed.