Helping Teens Regulate Emotions
More and more teens are having difficulty regulating their emotions. Being “emotional” and having a roller coaster of feelings is a normal part of being a teenager. Yet many teens experience this intensity at unhealthy levels and for extended lengths of time. Being unable to “cap”, regulate, or de-escalate their feelings puts them at risk for more serious emotional problems such as anxiety and depression.
Understanding the Emotional Part of the Teen Brain
As insurance companies know well, the adult brain is not fully formed until the early-to-mid twenties. The prefrontal cortex (that high level, and executive decision-making area) is the last of the brain to fully develop. The prefrontal cortex is the first “filter” that picks up and responds to stimuli from the environment. For example, if a teen gives another teen a dirty look, that stimuli will go into the brain via the prefrontal cortex.
Since there is very little prefrontal cortex filter in place, the stimulus goes straight to the Amygdala (th
e emotional seat of the brain) and pops it. The Amygdala fires right back with an emotional response based on the stimulus. Because it’s such an old part of the brain (often called the “reptilian brain”), it will naturally seek to protect and prompt a ‘fight-flight’ response if it interprets the stimulus as a threat. The problem is, the prefrontal cortex’s job is to label the stimulus for the amygdala. So, without a fully-developed or fully-functioning prefrontal cortex, the amygdala has no way of knowing whether the “dirty look” is a threat or not so it will always default to “threat mode” and turn on Defcon 1 by firing back a boatload of anger, fear, panic, disgust, and/or sadness.
The PFC has another opportunity- to de-escalate the situation. But again, because the threat is not actually there, that emotional response from the amygdala comes out unfiltered. If the emotional roller coaster will go “off track” or if the “brakes” can be applied to slow it down all depends upon what happens, what skills or tools a teen has, and what they have learned from their role models in their life for handling intense emotions.
This all happens within a normal, healthy teen brain.
- experience trauma of any kind
- have high levels of drama in their social lives
- don’t get a chance at a young age to learn that failure is not fatal
- don’t develop skills for overcoming obstacles and coping with setbacks and failure
- have a serious illness in the family
- or have family problems at home
this “roller coaster” of emotion gets even harder to keep “on the tracks.”
So what can we do to help teens get better at managing their emotional lives?
1. Talk During Calm Times. Too often we try to handle the problem when we are still experiencing the symptoms. When it comes to teens’ emotions, the symptoms happen during the “blow up.” These are the worst times to try and really address the issue. I’ll talk later about what to do during blow ups but conversations during the “down times” are essential in helping to de-escalate the situation. Click here for tips on having difficult conversations with teens.
2. Help Teens Understand that Feelings, While Real, do Not Represent Absolute Truth. When we have intense feelings, we can easily assume that the beliefs we unconsciously generate about those feelings are the gospel truth. Most often, that is not the case. Feelings, while very real, especially for the person experiencing them, are not always true.
For example, I can have many warm feelings about seeing my presents under the tree as a small child and romanticize about how magical and wonderful Santa was. I can also have those same feelings today by calling them to mind, but those feelings don’t make Santa Clause real or true.
The ultimate goal, especially for therapists and spiritual companions walking with teens, is to help them challenge the belief they’ve associated with a feeling. Instead of a teen seeing a dirty look, feeling scared, and then going into a full blown panic attack, a teen who learns to assess the feeling can see the dirty look and feel their stomach turn. They identify that they’re scared because that feeling in their stomach is generating beliefs that if that “look” means the girl hates them, then she’ll turn the rest of the school against them`. The first step is helping teens see that when you have an intense feeling, there may be a number of reasons that the feeling may not be true.
3. Identify the Emotion. Intense emotions are like magnets, and all of the other emotions are like metal shavings. When we experience an intense emotion but are not able to regulate it in a timely manner, those 1 or 2 intense emotions can latch with a host of other emotions. If a teen feels severely stressed and is not able to manage their response, they can start to generate thoughts based on feeling overwhelmed, powerless, helpless, lost, incompetent, and like a failure. You can help your teen by aiding them in identifying as many of the emotions they are experiencing as possible. Because emotions are so numerous (and often nuanced), it can be hard for adults to identify and name groups of emotions, let alone teens. I find handing a teen a sheet (download here) with a list of common emotions and feelings helps them to identify what they’re feeling. Naming it helps in taming it. When we’re able to identify and clarify what it is that we’re feeling or experiencing, we gain a sense of control over it. A sense of control in itself can often de-escalate an emotional experience.
4. Identify a Safe Place and Person. Sometimes teens need to temporarily remove themselves from a situation in order to recover. Help them identify a place and a process for excusing themselves from a situation. Review with them some common places and situations that might be called for and help them develop an inconspicuous way to leave with a plan to re-enter. Having a safe person to go to, in addition to their parents, can help teens regulate emotion. Help them to teach their friends that they don’t need them to fix the problem. They just need them to listen and try to understand. For our part, listening is a huge first step. But when you can combine deep empathic listening with reflecting back to the teen what you’re hearing and seeing, you can literally watch the emotion leave the teen like air leaving a balloon. Empathic listening is that powerful and effective.
5. Teach Self Soothing Skills. I tell my teens, “When you’re in your head, you’re dead.” Getting
“into” your body through exercise, aromatherapy, massages, writing, doing something with your hands, and breath work exercises like square breathing helps get you out of your head. When you get into your body, even briefly, you stop pumping the catastrophizing thoughts, the resulting adrenaline, and the ancillary emotions. Teaching teens some key affirmations and positive self-talk is another way of self-soothing. When they’re feeling worried, it can be helpful for them to say to themselves “It’s going to be OK. I’ve made it through worse things. This too shall pass. I can handle difficult experiences. This won’t kill me.” All are all types of affirmations. For teens who are more spiritually or religiously inclined, memorizing short bible passages or other short lines from wisdom literature can be helpful. “Even though I walk in the darkness I fear no evil for you, Lord is at my side.” has gotten me through quite a few emotional twisters! Teens can also practice thought challenging, which occurs after they’ve identified the feeling and the catastrophic thoughts associated with the feeling. “I got a dirty look, my stomach turned, and I was afraid that if she didn’t like me, then no one else would.” Thought challenging here sounds like “Was it really a dirty look? Could I have misread her look? Have I ever misread somebody before? Have I ever felt like this before, ended up fine, and I made a big deal out of nothing? Even if she doesn’t like me, does that necessarily mean she’ll turn the whole school against me? And what if she tried? Does that mean they’d follow? And what if they did? Does that mean that my life is over? It might feel like it, but would that seriously mean I’d never be happy again?”