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Adolescence and Processing Painful Emotion

Young people who cannot process emotion are in more danger of acting it out

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

For most young people, the journey of growing up is at times an emotionally painful passage, and necessarily so. For example:

There is loss when separating from childhood, letting go childish ways, and missing much that was valued and familiar.

There is self-consciousness from adjusting to the non-voluntary physical changes and social consequences of puberty.

There is the desire to socially belong with peers and the fear of not fitting in.

There is anxiety from experimenting with older experience and adventures, and daring the unknown.

There is loneliness when valued relationships don’t come together or come apart.

There is disappointment when some goals or ambitions of growing up are not fulfilled.

There is boredom from not always knowing what to do with one’s changing self.

And there are more times of frustration and estrangement when getting crossways with parents over issues of social independence and self-expression.

In this more emotionally intense world, an important part of healthy self-management development is learning how to process painful emotions when they arise – in helpful and not self or socially harmful ways. By example, instruction, and interaction, parents have a central role to play in this education. “We routinely talk about our feelings, happy and unhappy, with the kids so they can learn to do the same with us.”

So consider how parents might approach the topic of emotion in general with their teenager, and then how parents might help the young person process emotionally painful feelings when they arise. Parents might start by explaining about emotions this way.


One over-simplified way to think about feelings are as psychological agents of our “affective awareness system” that emotionally detect when something significant, from pleasurable to painful, is going on in our inner or outer world of life experience. Emotion can direct our attention to what is happening and can energize a reflective, expressive, or corrective response. Emotions are very valuable sources of self-understanding.

Along with other awareness systems (vision and hearing and touch, for example) our affective awareness system helps keep us in contact with significant occurrences within and around us. Pleasurable feelings inform us about something positive going on. For example, love identifies attachment; curiosity identifies interest; gratitude identifies appreciation. Painful feelings inform us about something negative going on. For example, anger identities violations; fear identifies danger; grief identifies loss.

What doesn’t serve a young person well is when they are cut off from self-understanding and are unknowing, and when they are socially cut off from others and are alone. Unhappiness + emotional ignorance + social isolation = more risk of doing harm. Here is where acts of self and social injury can occur – when unhappy emotions are given dominant focus on what is happening and are given controlling influence over what to do.

This is why, for example, parents should always be vigilant about a romantic adolescent break-up, particularly when their teenager is in the rejected role. It is very easy for the rejected party to become emotionally overwhelmed from the loss of first love. At this juncture a young woman can be at more risk of depression from grief over her "deficient womanhood," while the young man can be more at risk of aggression from grievance over his "injured manhood." In both cases, talking out unhappiness can lessen the likelihood of acting it out

While feelings can be good informants; they can be very bad advisors. For example, anger can advise retaliation; fear can advise avoidance; and depression can advise withdrawal. In each case, these emotional decisions can make a hard situation worse, not better. Thus it’s important for the teenager to know that while feeling upset is okay; acting upset may not be. Explaining anger to someone is usually safer than showing that person how angry one feels. As for substance use when upset, this tends to increase emotional intensity and emotional influence over decision-making.


It’s important that by adolescence young people have been a taught a working vocabulary that identifies a particular word with a particular emotional state. This is why parents teach young children the “feeling words” so the child can identify and talk out emotions and not impulsively act them out. “When you feel like hitting me, rather than do that, say you are feeling ‘angry’ at me and I will listen to what you have to say, then help figure out what to do.” Through words spoken to themselves or to another person or both, a young person can learn to process feelings by talking and working out management of the emotional experience. “I feel better knowing what feels wrong and having some idea of how best to respond.”

So how can parents help their young adolescent, at a more emotionally intense period of growing up, learn to constructively manage inevitable times of emotional unhappiness? They might help the young person ask and answer four processing questions.

“What word or words best describes the unhappiness I am feeling?”

“What am I saying to myself or doing with myself that may be making the unhappiness worse?”

“What could I say to myself or do with myself that might make me feel better?”

“Who could I talk to (like parents or a counselor, or both) for emotional support to help get though a hard emotional time?”


Of course, if we were educationally willing, we could offer middle school students a class in understanding emotion and emotional self-management. At this developmentally vulnerable time, and to prepare for the challenging adolescent years ahead, we could give them formal instruction about many varieties of pleasuring and painful emotions, and suggest constructive strategies for getting the happy ones and for getting through the unhappy ones.

Perhaps call the class, “Affective Education,” and just present emotionality as a fundamental part of the human condition, one that can be understood and safely managed by choices people of all ages make.

On the happy feeling side, student discussion could focus on such topics as: interest, infatuation, trust, love, enjoyment, admiration, curiosity, excitement, anticipation, attraction, fascination, temptation, competition, confidence, loyalty, courage, contentment, fulfillment, ambition, empathy, hope, satisfaction, relief, relaxation, joy, appreciation, gratitude, pride, competence, success, eagerness, delight, and triumph.

On the unhappy feeling side, student discussion could focus on such topics as: loss, grief, embarrassment, hurt, loneliness, humiliation, shame, anxiety, threat, dread, fright, suspicion, distrust, frustration, disappointment, sadness, anger, resentment, rage, hate, guilt, regret, rejection, shyness, impatience, inadequacy, insecurity, failure, worthlessness, loneliness, envy, jealousy, helplessness, apathy, and boredom.

There are so many ways for people younger and older to feel happiness and unhappiness, so why not provide some emotional self-management education in school? What makes emotional sense (following one’s feelings) does not always make reasonable sense (checking with one’s judgment), and young people need practice puzzling out which to use when making what kinds of decisions. They need to understand that feelings are functional and so are worthy of attending to.

And if some grownups object by saying that 6th – 8th graders should not be exposed to such a loaded topic, suggest to these reticent adults that by middle school most young people already experientially are. That’s life.

Plus, since youthful acts of self and social violence are at least partly emotionally driven, perhaps some Affective Education could provide adolescents with non-destructive alternatives to consider when significant unhappiness occurs.

For more about parenting teenagers, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week’s entry: Correcting Teenagers by Taking Away Freedom of Action or Use