Helping Teens Manage Big Emotions

July 21, 2017

Research indicates that emotional regulation is one of the most important skills we can teach our children. Teens who lack an effective way of managing distressing emotions may choose maladaptive ways of coping, such as avoidance or numbing through addictions. Managing difficult or complex feelings requires a capacity for self-reflection. The quality of interiority – an awareness of and interest in our inner, psychic landscape – is essential for self-reflection.

When we know ourselves to have a complex inner life, we are able to be curious about the thoughts and feelings that take place there. Being curious about our emotions allows us to see them as something that is distinct from us, and this in turn gives us choices about how we respond to them.

Imagine a teenager who has just gotten a failing grade on a quiz. He is devastated. Powerful emotions are compelling, and feel real. It is difficult for this student to find a mental frame of reference outside of the strong feeling of upset. He forgets that last week he did well on an assignment and felt good about himself. It is hard for him to imagine that he might feel good again next week.

By contrast, when we value our inner life, we can stand a little aside from strong feelings. They are still there, and still powerful, but we have cultivated just enough space in our inner world to stand back from them. We know that feelings are not facts. We still feel awful, but we see the emotion for what it is – just an emotion, not absolute truth. We can also look around our inner psychic landscape and see other features. Strong emotional experiences are relativized.

Feelings come with narratives, and these are often generated unconsciously, without our being aware of them. This means that it takes some degree of effort and insight to evaluate the accuracy of these narratives. Being panicked about a poor grade may lead to black and white thinking that tells us we are a failure who will now not get into a good college and will have a terrible life. If we can’t manage to keep the big feeling and its associated narrative in context, we may become attached to this understanding of what happened, which may mean that we decided to give up. We may avoid asking for help, or even drop the class.

With the distance that comes with self-reflection, we can contextualize our distress. This helps to generate more options when deciding how to respond. Even though we feel really frightened and hopeless, we might remember that the teacher told everyone this would be a difficult quiz. Perhaps doing poorly on it doesn’t mean we are stupid. Maybe we can ask for an opportunity to earn extra credit, or seek help so that we do better on the next assessment.

In this way, our degree of distress is decreased because we are better able to keep our difficulty in perspective. We are able to assess the situation more objectively, and we have a wider range of options to choose from when deciding on a response.

Developing interiority means appreciating our feelings and honoring them as important, even while we also recognize that they may not be true. It means neither overvaluing or undervaluing our emotional responses. We don’t want to tell ourselves that our feelings don’t matter, or that we are not allowed to feel certain things. On the other hand, we also don’t want to overvalue our feelings by deciding that the impulses that come with big feelings need to be acted on, or the narrative generated by the emotion is true.

Helping our children develop interiority will require us to develop it as well. What we model to our children in terms of dealing with our own distress – and theirs – will in large part determine what they learn about managing emotions. When something upsetting happens, all of us have an immediate impulse to make the problem go away as quickly as possible. It may be difficult to stay with upsetting feelings of fear or despair, and so we plunge headlong into action.

While this is an understandable response, in many case, it works against us. Rushing to fix a problem leaves us with little time to feel our feelings and be curious about them. It encourages our kids to see the inner life as something that needs to be managed rather than experienced. It is easy as a parent to fall into the trap of responding in this way. When children are upset, we feel an urgency to resolve their distress.

When our kid comes home from school teary with frustration about his friends calling him names on the playground, we may feel tempted to give advice or take action. While it is possible that either advice or action might be needed at some point, listening with openness and curiosity shows respect for the feelings in their own right. It gives those feelings space to just be there, and time to see if those feelings need to transform into something else of their own accord. Attending to our feelings helps us cultivate an awareness of and appreciation for our inner life.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

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