How to React to Adolescent Emotions

The most effective way to de-escalate emotions is with validation.

Posted Sep 16, 2019

FotoRieth/Pixaby
Source: FotoRieth/Pixaby

Adolescent emotional development is often characterized by rapidly fluctuating, intense emotions. Teens are experiencing changing hormones and increased stressors. At the same time, while there is initial development in brain regions linked with emotional reactivity, there is slower development in brain structures linked with emotion regulation.

Intense emotional expression is often one of the more difficult aspects of parenting teenagers. The whirlwind of emotions can leave parents feeling like they are walking on eggshells. They are often trying to put out emotional fires before they escalate or spread into household conflict.

So, what can a parent do to calm the emotional storm?

As a clinical psychologist, I have found one of the most effective ways to de-escalate emotions is with validation. 

Validation is one of the core elements of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a treatment developed by Marsha Linehan. DBT was initially designed as a treatment for Borderline Personality Disorder, a personality disorder characterized by extreme emotions and destructive behaviors that follow from them.  Given its effectiveness, it has been adapted to treat individuals more generally struggling with intense emotional turbulence and problematic ways of coping with their distress. Though adolescent emotional turbulence can fall well within normative ranges, the DBT strategy of validation remains effective.

Validation is the act of acknowledging another person’s thoughts and feelings and communicating to them that those thoughts and feelings make sense and are understandable given the situation. It is important to note validating is not the same as agreeing. Validation is important because it shows you are listening, you understand, and you are approaching the person in a nonjudgmental way. Importantly, research has indicated that parental validation is associated with improved emotional regulation in adolescents and greater satisfaction in the parent-child relationship (Shenk, Chad & Fruzetti, 2013).

Given the intensity of our teens’ emotions, parents are often inclined to try and talk teens out of their strong feelings, attempt to solve their problem or try to avoid teens altogether when they are emotional. This is particularly true when teen emotions appear to be “overreactions.” Parental attempts in these directions are often met with a counterintuitive response. The emotions get stronger, or, possibly more frustrating, they get directed at us.

One reason our teens’ emotions escalate with these interactions is they are often experienced as invalidating. In my clinical practice, I encourage parents to change their approach by looking for ways to validate. There are many ways we can validate teen emotional reactions, even when we don’t necessarily agree with them.

1. Pay Attention: The simplest way to let our teens know that their emotions are valid and important to us is to give them our undivided attention. Try to stop what you are doing and put down distractions such as cell phones. If that truly isn’t possible, let your teen know it is important to you to be able to listen attentively and arrange a time when you can do that. Pay attention: with eye contact and body language. It is particularly important to note that if we only provide our full attention when emotional displays are huge, our teens will learn that they need to have big emotional outbursts to get our attention. 

2. Reflect Back: Reflecting back communicates that our teens’ emotions are important enough to us to make sure we are understanding correctly. Moreover, it ensures that we actually are understanding correctly! In the face of strong emotions, it is easy to misunderstand what the emotion is and what is causing it. Reflecting back should be free of judgments on the accuracy, effectiveness or reasonableness of the emotions expressed.

When we reflect back on our understanding of what has just been said we gain the opportunity to seek clarification and rid ourselves of inaccurate interpretations. Be open to correction by your teen without defensive comments such as “I guess I don’t get anything right.” Remember that validation is about their experience, not ours.

3. Ask Questions: Beyond serving as an additional way to seek clarification, asking questions is a wonderful way to validate that your teen’s emotional experience is important enough for you to want a full understanding. It is a particularly powerful tool when you feel utterly confused by the emotional hurricane, or when you don’t feel like you agree with what they are saying. We can ask them to “help me understand that from your point of view.” It is only when teens feel that their point of view is understood that they may be open to feedback regarding their interpretations, or the intensity of their reactions.

4. Normalize When Appropriate: One reason behind the escalation of teen emotions is a teen’s tendency to judge their own emotions as “not making sense.” They also may assume listeners are doing the same. It can be helpful to communicate that you or someone else might be having the same reaction. For example, “I would be really upset too.” Keep in mind that statements such as “everyone goes through that” can also be invalidating if it is interpreted as minimizing their own experience. Tread carefully. If the emotions escalate, this is clearly not what they need to hear.

5. Communicate Why the Emotion Makes Sense: Sometimes we are so focused on why emotional intensity doesn’t make sense that we fail to see what in the current context, or historical experience of our teen explains their reaction. Does their distress about an upcoming social event make sense in light of their social anxiety? Does their distress over a “B” on a test make sense given their emphasis on academic achievement? Does their anger at a friend make sense given a previous event?

In general, this form of validation emphasizes our willingness to see things from our teen’s perspective. It further lends legitimacy to the fact that the same event can be experienced differently based on the current context and personal history. Consider the person who is afraid of an adorable dog. That makes more sense once you realize (s)he has been bitten previously by a dog of the same breed. Similarly, it makes sense when someone is shivering in 100-degree heat if (s)he currently is running a fever.

Finding the historical, or contextual, reason for why teens’ emotions make sense can be difficult. However, paying attention and asking questions should provide some clues.

Though there is no perfect formula for helping our teens, or ourselves, weather the emotional roller coaster of adolescence, validation goes a long way. When they feel heard and validated rather than judged, emotions are soothed, and parent-teen relationships are enhanced. At least some of those emotion storms will deescalate to sun showers!

References

Shenk, Chad & Fruzzetti, Alan. (2013). Parental Validating and Invalidating Responses and Adolescent Psychological Functioning: An Observational Study. The Family Journal. 22. 43-48. 10.1177/1066480713490900.