Although emotions are built into the human experience, our amazing capacity to ponder, express, and discuss our inner experiences has had a transformative effect on our experience of emotions. Even so, emotions remain a tough topic of conversation for many of us. This difficulty can be particularly true for adolescents and their families. Emotional development, like all development, requires time, opportunities to practice, guidance, and nurturing. And emotion regulation, the ways we monitor, evaluate, and modify our emotional reactions, represents both a lifelong area of development and a potential stress-point in family relationships. Let’s explore five strategies to help families and teens deal with (and even embrace) the emotional times.
1. Accept that emotions are the norm. We cannot actually escape emotional times and there is reason to be glad. Emotions are what make us human – and can be part of our most memorable and enjoyable times. Rather than viewing an emotional teenager as having a problem, we can welcome him into the all-too-human emotional world. Of course, some emotional expressions can be a symptom of a problem. But in general, we can reduce the tension by accepting that emotions are part of the fabric of family life. And we can also bear in mind that for some of our teens, emotions are like intense weather, with storms that come raging in and then quickly move off. For others, emotions can be more like a weather system stuck over an area, those long strings of sunny days (hooray!) or day after day of overcast meh. In short, accepting our teens’ emotions can help us know the climate and weather patterns of our teens’ emotional worlds. And this knowledge can help us participate constructively in their development of emotion regulation.
2. Validate and probe the roots of feelings. Emotions usually are markers of matters of import. That is, we get emotional about people, things, and situations that matter to us. An important step then can be to listen to your child and validate her experience. Help her find the words to express her feelings without trying to make those feelings go away (immediately, at least). Help foster the notion that feelings are helpful and not dangerous, and see if you can discern with her the reasons for her feelings. Sometimes being angry at younger sister when she accidentally damages the family copy of Hop on Pop can be driven by older sister’s feeling upset about losing her childhood. Understanding the sources can help you empathize better, as well as help point to possible ways to cope.
3. Start your modeling career. As a human who experiences emotions, you have the job of a super-model! You are always modeling how to deal with your feelings in your family – in your best and worst moments. Use those opportunities when you are having a feeling to have conversations about your feelings. Even (and perhaps especially) when you are not doing a great job. Talk through your feelings and how you are dealing with them. Even use your miscues of coping as a chance to model how not to do it. For example, at times I may have yelled angrily at cars whose drivers appeared less than skillful in my estimation. I can use those times to talk over the pros and cons of my choice to shout. And then I can consider other ways to respond – like reminding myself that everyone gets distracted and that even if I am delayed twenty seconds, everything will be okay.
4. Doing reps in the emotions gym. Just because we embrace emotions does not make them always conveniently timed. Nor does it always make our reactions to our emotions appropriate. That is to say, we all have intense emotional reactions that we later regret. As a result, one important family goal is to help foster a mindset that’s akin to “taking lessons” or “learning a sport” regarding particularly problematic emotional reaction. In other words, we promote profuse practicing.
For example, imagine that Tara gets angry at times and explodes at her family members verbally. One important goal for the family will be to help Tara identify other ways to express her anger. We are all familiar with this idea; call it problem-solving, coping, or emotion regulation. Another important, though less familiar step, is for Tara to have more opportunities to practice. That is, she needs to get angry again (and again) to have practice trying out the new ways of coping. Although many of us would like to have fewer emotional situations, often the best medicine at first is to have more of them so that Tara can learn these new ways. Avoiding emotions can actually make coping worse.
5. There is more than one way out of the woods. Few parents need to be reminded that their children are both similar to and different from them. We may share eye color, relative height, and a passion for math, but other aspects of our children differ from us. This is also true with emotion regulation. Thus, the final tip is to keep in mind that just because you found a few good ways to manage your anxiety (like exercising or talking with friends) that doesn’t mean your teen will benefit, too. Although some books (websites, blogs, people) may argue to the contrary, dealing with feelings is a process where your results may vary. Because of this, please do share your ways of coping with feelings with your teen. He may reject your ideas as lame. You may hear, “Everyone knows that, Dad.” But it is a good idea to get your ideas out there. When he is twenty-three, he may thank you for one of your tried-and-true ideas. In addition, though, encourage him to pursue other ideas creatively and persistently. And please look far afield for ways to cope. The diversity of our social world, particularly with the advent of social media, provides a world of options. Though some will be useless, gems abound. And remember that doing nothing is always a legit option. Feelings are important, but they need not always lead to actions. As mentioned, some feelings are like fleeting storms. In the end, the goal is to begin to fill the adolescent’s toolbox with ways of dealing with feelings that help promote good interpersonal and intrapersonal adjustment. The hope is that he will keep adding new tools and one day, teach his own children this emotion regulation thing we are all still – and always will be – learning.