Recently there has been an increasing trend in my practice of parents reaching out to help their adolescents manage their emotions. Parents often tell me, “My teen goes from zero to sixty, seemingly without any provocation. Nothing I say seems to help. Discipline doesn’t have an impact.”
I think we all must remember that being a teen is not something most of us would like to repeat. It’s difficult to manage the various changes that happen all at once—physical changes, emotional changes, life changes. During the teen years, the brain develops at such a rapid pace that it puts the limbic system into fight, flight, or freeze mode. When the brain is in this mode, it is less able to access executive functions such as reason, logic, or the ability to use good judgment.
In addition to that, it’s also essential to consider the many things life throws in a teen’s path that can result in trauma, anxiety, depression, or general distress. In trying to navigate social situations, bullies and other stressors, school, various other responsibilities, and home life, as well as beginning (or continuing) the process of self-discovery, teens have a full plate indeed.
Developing Skills To Manage Emotions
Fortunately there are skills teens can learn to help manage their emotions and the many changes they are facing. Managing emotions is one of the most important life skills a person can develop. I work with many adults who became stuck in adolescence while trying to learn to manage their emotions. As a result, they find their adult relationships difficult to navigate at times.
I believe one of the most important strategies to develop in managing emotions is the ability to identify feelings. Sometimes teens find it difficult to let themselves know what they are feeling, or perhaps they simply don’t know how to identify their feelings. Once they are able to identify and articulate their feelings, vulnerability comes into play, but often the vulnerability piece is avoided because of fear of rejection. Defense mechanisms such as criticism, defensiveness, blaming others, shutting down, or using anger to intimidate are some of the strategies teens may resort to in order to save face.
Learning to Accept Feelings
I believe it’s also of great importance for teens to learn how to accept their feelings. I often work with teenagers who want me to tell them how to make their charged emotions go away. I sometimes ask, “What would happen if you accepted your feelings?” The notion of accepting feelings is not one that is often seen as an option. What I see more often in teenagers is the underlying belief that if the feelings are accepted, they are settling for feeling that way on an ongoing basis.
I remind teens that emotions are not necessarily reality. Emotions can cloud the big picture, and when teens succumb to their emotions, they may lose perspective on what is real. I often encourage teens to pay attention to their self-talk. What do they say to themselves about their feelings? Self-talk is very powerful, and most of us engage in more negative self-talk than positive self-talk. Teens are no exception. But I encourage teens to give themselves permission to have their feelings, to stay in the moment (stay present) and to “be” with their feelings, even the ones that are uncomfortable. Doing so requires teens to learn to be mindful and intentional in processing their feelings and also to learn how to self-soothe. I encourage teens to give themselves permission to have their feelings, to stay in the moment (stay present) and to “be” with their feelings, even the ones that are uncomfortable. Doing so requires teens to learn to be mindful and intentional in processing their feelings and also to learn how to self-soothe.
Teens are often faced with things that are beyond their control, and this can result in anxiety, which is based in fear. What cannot be controlled may produce fear. The ability to discern what can be controlled and what cannot be controlled is important, and teens may find it beneficial to learn how to discern and then let go of what cannot be controlled. Admittedly, this is much easier said than done!
I also advocate for teens to find appropriate ways to express their feelings, negative and positive. Feelings must be released somehow, and the key for teens is to find ways to express them using techniques that will not harm them or anyone else.
There are numerous appropriate techniques teens can use to express their feelings:
- Teens can write about their feelings.
- Teens can express their feelings through art.
- Music helps many teens both realize and express their feelings.
- Physical activity can be productive in helping teens release their feelings.
- Crying is very beneficial at times; teens should know it’s okay to cry.
- Talking and processing emotions with someone trusted can be helpful for both releasing feelings and gaining perspective.
- Sometimes teens need to take some pressure off of themselves and “just be.” This should be allowed and encouraged.
- The empty chair technique, which I discuss below, can be very cathartic.
The Empty Chair Technique
The empty chair technique, cathartic in releasing feelings and understanding internal conflict, comes from Gestalt theory. If a teen is experiencing emotional dysregulation about another person or a social situation, the teen puts this person or situation into an empty chair, metaphorically speaking. The teen sits in the chair and takes the role of the other person, saying what they imagine the other person would say. The teen then switches back to their own chair and says what they want to say (out loud) to the person(s) they would like to express their feelings to.
I encourage teens not to worry about what they are saying when they use this technique. If they need to yell, they can yell. They can express their raw emotions without worrying about retaliation. The objective of this exercise is to help the teen understand the internal dilemma they are experiencing about the other person or situation.
What Can Parents Do?
I believe that generally, parents do the best they can. Sometimes, parents need the opportunity to learn effective parenting skills to navigate the many challenges that come with adolescence. Some effective strategies parents can use to support their teens in learning better emotional management may include:
- Using non-judgmental language. It is easy to assume we, as parents, know the intent of the behavior teens display, but sometimes we don’t. It is important to separate the intent of the behavior from the effect of the behavior and to not assume the intent of the behavior is negative.
- Avoiding all-or-nothing thinking and accepting there is sometimes a gray area
- Facilitating independence by providing assistance
- Providing choices and limits
- Be willing to renegotiate and choose priorities
- Providing firmness and gentleness
- Displaying acceptance and hope
- Validating by paying attention, helping your teen clarify their thinking, normalizing your teen’s feelings or behaviors, and displaying empathy and acceptance. When appropriate, offer self-disclosure and vulnerability when your teen is vulnerable.
Finally, self-care is an important skill for both teens and parents to learn. What do they need to take care of themselves? Exercise? A long bath? Rest? Healthy food? What do they need from another person they can trust? A hug, words of encouragement, or a shoulder (all without judgment) can be very healing. Teens and parents must learn to allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to reach out when they need emotional support and to practice self-acceptance while still remaining open to change.
- The empty chair – Gestalt theory at work. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://plaza.ufl.edu/jerez64/paper2.html
- Parrott’s classification of emotions chart. (2013, June 29). Retrieved from http://msaprilshowers.com/emotions/parrotts-classification-of-emotions-chart
- What is DBT? (n.d.). The Linehan Institute. Retrieved from http://behavioraltech.org/resources/whatisdbt.cfm
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