Why Are Some Teens So Much Better at Coping with Stress?

Research shows that parents who emphasize emotion coaching have healthier teens.

Posted Mar 30, 2020

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Tune in to your own emotions to teach your teenagers to tune in to theirs!
Source: David Pereiras Villagrá/123RF

We know that emotion socialization, which is the way parents communicate with kids about their emotions, is an important predictor of later emotional health. The emotion socialization model was first proposed by Eisenberg and colleagues in 1998, and it has been supported in many research studies since.

The best part of the model is that it has immediate implications for intervention. Since emotion socialization is so powerful, let’s teach parents to do it right! Research on preschool through late adolescence has consistently supported the validity of the model.

As parents are taught to engage in better emotion socialization, their kid’s mental health improves. This holds true for internalizing behaviors such as withdrawal, depression, and anxiety, and externalizing behaviors such as aggression and acting out. The model works in preschool, elementary school, and high school.

It’s nice to know what works, but we also need to understand for whom it works, otherwise known as the moderator effects. It’s also useful to understand the mechanism of change, or why it works. This helps us further design and modify interventions using the model.

Researchers at the University of Melbourne recently published a study that does just that. They analyzed the results of an intervention known as “Tuning in to Teens” to see for whom it worked best, and what about it was so efficacious. In earlier research, they demonstrated that Tuning in to Teens helps parents learn to provide emotion socialization, and this has important effects on teen outcomes.

The research demonstrated that Tuning in to Teens had a significant effect on child anxiety, more so than depression, and that it works for the reasons hypothesized. The “for whom does it work?” question is, “It works best for kids who are feeling anxious, and less well for kids who are feeling depressed.” The researchers also pointed out that the model has not been tested in very low-income and very diverse populations.

In terms of why it works, let’s explore the model.

The Emotion Socialization Model

The way parents model and teach emotion coping has a strong effect on their children’s later emotion regulation. Children’s temperament and emotion socialization all interact with their parents':

  • Meta-emotion philosophy
  • Reactivity/emotion regulation skills
  • Mental health
  • Family history

Meta-emotion philosophy

What are our beliefs about emotion? Do we believe that emotions should be suppressed, ignored, controlled, or accepted? A parent who understands that the basis of psychological health is the ability to accept and manage uncomfortable emotions will be able to teach this basic truth to their children. A parent who says things like “grow up! You’re still mad about that?” or “Just stop thinking about it,” or dismisses the child’s emotions entirely is a parent who has an uninformed meta-emotion philosophy.

Reactivity/Emotion Regulation Skills 

Some people are reactive – when they feel an emotion, they feel it strongly, and feel the need to act on it immediately. Some people tend to withdraw and shut down when they feel emotions strongly. Others tend to fly off the handle, yelling or becoming aggressive, when they feel uncomfortable emotions. It’s OK to be a reactive person by nature, but we have to model resilient ways of coping with stress.

How do we handle excess strong uncomfortable emotions? Do we know how to proactively manage stress, so that emotions never get too strong to handle? Do we know how to use mindfulness, relaxation, deep breathing, or cognitive reappraisal to help lower emotions? These are all skills kids need to learn, but we can’t teach them those skills if we don’t have them ourselves.

Mental Health

If a parent has a mental health problem that is unaddressed, they may have a hard time teaching their child appropriate emotional coping. That doesn’t mean that if someone has a mental health disorder, they are automatically a bad parent. Some of the best parents in my practice are those with various diagnoses. The key is if the mental health disorder is being appropriately handled and treated.

Family History

What was your family’s message about emotion? What messages did your culture give you about how emotions are handled? A family might pass on a message that the only acceptable way to manage emotions is to engage in emotional eating, or that “boys don’t cry,” or that feeling emotion is somehow weak. We have to tease out what our family history has taught us about emotions, and whether those messages are valid, and if we’d like to replace them with better messages.

The Tuning in to Teens program teaches parents to be aware and accepting of their own emotions, encourage emotional expression in their children, and to engage in emotion coaching when a teenager is dealing with a strong emotional reaction.

Tuning in to Teens stops parents from making these common mistakes:

  • Responding to the level of intensity of the emotional expression, rather than the emotion. Teenagers tend to express their emotions intensely, and they don’t always use the wisest words or actions to do so. Rather than reacting to the words the child uses; parents should react to the emotion underlying them. If a child uses inappropriate language, hear the anger and frustration that’s under it. Rather than reacting to the words the child is using, talk about the anger.
  • Assigning a “maturity level” to emotions. Emotions don’t have ages! There’s no such thing as a “babyish” response. Grow up, already is never a valid response to a child’s emotional reaction. Humans have feelings, and that’s not something we grow out of. When a child is overreacting or seems to be responding immaturely, it’s best to coach him through that feeling, rather than sending the message that he’s too old to feel that way.
  • Withdrawing affection due to adolescent intensity. Adolescent intensity can be scary, and it’s normal to want to move away from that. Effective parents know that when they’re acting their most intense and unlovable, that’s when they need love and connection the most.
  • Overreacting to normal autonomy striving. Teenagers want to be independent, and that’s normal. Some of their behavior — caring about the opinion of their friends more than their parents, withdrawing, being embarrassed by their family, or needing to do things their way — are just part of that normal adolescent striving. The more we make space for it and tolerate it, the more they can accomplish this task while also learning to manage their emotions.
  • Emotion dismissing. Humans don’t react well to having the word “should” applied to an emotion. The minute we’re saying, “You shouldn’t feel that way,” or “no, you don’t hate your father,” is the minute we’re dismissing a valid emotional reaction. Instead of dismissing, we’re much better off attuning, attaching, and educating. This allows our children to feel validated and supported, while also allowing us to educate the child about better ways of expressing herself and coping with strong emotion.

The emotion coaching model teaches parents to:

  1. Become aware of the child’s emotion at a low enough state of intensity, so that the child can be coached through it.
  2. Become aware of the child’s emotions (at a lower state of intensity)
  3. View the child’s emotion as an opportunity for closeness and teaching
  4. Communicate understanding and acceptance of emotions with empathy
  5. Help the child use words to describe how they feel
  6. Assist with problem-solving if necessary

Tuning in to Teens has been demonstrated effective in helping parents engage in emotion socialization. Let’s use the principles we’ve explored in this article to keep teaching our teenagers how to cope with their emotions. It’s never too late to start.

© Robyn Koslowitz, 2020

References

Kehoe, C. E., Havighurst, S. S., & Harley, A. E. (2020). Tuning in to Teens: Investigating moderators of program effects and mechanisms of change of an emotion focused group parenting program. Developmental Psychology, 56(3), 623–637. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000875

Kehoe, C.E., Havighurst, S.S. and Harley, A.E. (2014), Tuning in to Teens: Internalizing Outcomes. Social Development, 23: 413-431. doi:10.1111/sode.12060

Eisenberg, N., Cumberland, A., & Spinrad, T. L. (1998). Parental socialization of emotion. Psychological Inquiry, 9, 241–273. http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1207/s15327965pli0904_1