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Adolescence and Emotion

Why there is more emotional intensity to manage during adolescence.

Adolescence can be a highly emotionally charged time of life.

The loss of childhood is so painful, the developmental challenges are so daunting, the vulnerability from insecurity is so great, the demands of growth are so many, the conflicts over independence are so frustrating, and the experience of growing older is so exciting.

During this more intense period of growth, it is helpful for parents (through example and instruction) to help their adolescents learn to manage emotions in ways that work well and not badly for all concerned, always remembering that now is later.

The adolescent is just an adult in training, and the tools for emotional management learned with parents will be carried forward into significant relationships later on. "I learned to shut up about my feelings living with my parents, and now in marriage, my wife complains I refuse to open up with her." It's easier to form habits than it is to break them.

Parents need to model safely talking out hard feelings, not acting them out by exploding to let off steam, to get their way, or to counter the teenager exploding at them. Yelling to stop teenage yelling only encourages more yelling.

Use emotions as weapons or for manipulation, and their honest meaning comes to be distrusted. "The only reason you're crying is to get me to feel sorry for you; you're not really feeling hurt."

It's strange to say, but emotions are too important to act emotionally upset about. They are a powerful source of understanding. Like our capacities to see, hear, smell, touch, intuit, and think, our capacity to feel is an important tool for self-awareness. Just as being blind or deaf can be partly disabling, to be out of contact with or cut off from one's emotions can be partly disabling too because important data is missing. "I don't know how I feel!"

In counseling, probably because of same-sex socializing with peers growing up (woman often encouraged to be sensitive and confiding about feelings, men often encouraged to be strong and silent about feelings) male and female clients frequently manage emotions quite differently.

Women appear more practiced and accustomed to talking about their emotions than men who are more practiced and accustomed to suppressing theirs. This distinction doesn't have to be if all adolescents, male and female, are taught at home that the sharing of feelings is a normal and healthy part of family discourse.

Having good emotional access and the ability to talk about feelings is really important in adolescence when periods of emotional duress are just part of the normal teenage passage. Consider some of these common emotional hard times:

  • Depression: spells of sadness over loss, over discouragement from disappointment.
  • Loneliness: spells of feeling cut-off, disconnected, not understood, and alone.
  • Self-rejection: spells of not liking/valuing the person one is becoming, troubled by a negative self-image.
  • Anxiety: spells of acute worry about adequately coping with challenges at hand and in the future.
  • Stress: spells of feeling overwhelmed and overwrought by too many demands.
  • Aggression: spells of fighting to gain control over what is happening, often as an expression of frustration.
  • Lability: spells of dramatically shifting emotional states between feeling up and down.
  • Confusion: spells of distractibility and wandering focus to keep track of all the complexity that needs attending to.

What parents need to evaluate is the young person's capacity to talk about what is going on, the length of time these spells last, and the behaviors that they precipitate. If the teenager can't seem to talk about what is going on, if the hard emotional state lasts more than several months, or if the young person is engaging in self-defeating or self-destructive behavior, they should get some manner of psychological help.

Counseling is a chance to open up what is going on, to gain self-understanding, and to develop coping strategies to make it through a hard time. In these situations, the use of psychoactive medication should be the last, not first, resort.

As for parents during these times of emotional duress, the watchword for them is to go slow when an emotional outburst occurs, to be empathic, and to invite talking out instead of popping off and provoking acting out. And it helps if they understand and convey the value of emotions — the most important one being that feelings are good informants. They are to be accepted, not argued with and discounted.

"You have no good reason to be embarrassed by me, I have done nothing wrong!" defends the parent by criticizing the sixth-grade child for not wanting to be seen at middle school with the parent.

No. The parental presence at this more socially independent time is causing the young person to feel self-conscious about parental companionship in public. Rather than invalidate the child's feeling of embarrassment, the parent should respect it so that, later on, they can talk about how to best manage this latest developmental turn of events.

The primary value of emotions is to inform a person about a felt reaction to a significant life experience, focus attention on that experience, and energize some manner of response. For example, reacting to some mistreatment, angry emotion can empower a person to make an expressive response ("I feel mad at what you did"), or a corrective response ("Please don't do that again"), or a protective response ("Do that again and I'll report what you did.").

Because of their informing, focussing, and energizing properties, emotions are always worth listening and attending to. In one form or another, they all say: "Be alert, something important is happening in my life right now, something that may merit a response."

Although feelings are neither good nor bad, people tend to assign them that distinction based on how the emotion is experienced.

Thus comfortable "good" emotions may include pride (focusing on accomplishment), love (focusing on devotion), joy (focusing on fulfillment), interest (focusing on attraction), or gratitude (focusing on appreciation). In general, people are happy to experience these and other positive feelings.

Uncomfortable "bad" emotions, by contrast, may include fear (focusing on danger), pain (focusing on injury), grief (focusing on loss), anger (focusing on violation), or frustration (focusing on blockage). In general, people are unhappy to experience these and other negative feelings.

Now comes the tricky part for adolescents — a part where parents have a helpful role to play. Emotions, particularly of the unhappy kind, can create a special jeopardy for teenagers. The reason for this risk is that although emotions are very good informants, they can be very bad advisors.

When the adolescent allows unhappy feelings to "think" for him or her, what "feels" best to make things better is often exactly what will make things worse. The emotional state is being allowed to determine the cognitive choice. Consider just a few common examples:

  • Depression can counsel "be inactive," instead of getting active on one's own behalf to make things better.
  • Discouragement can counsel "look at all the negative," instead of looking for the positive to make things better.
  • Anger can counsel "retaliation," instead of finding a constructive way to address the wrong to make things better.
  • Fear can counsel "run away," instead of standing and facing the threat to make things better.
  • Helplessness can counsel "give up," instead of keeping trying to make things better.
  • Loneliness can counsel "isolate," instead of reaching out to make things better.
  • Shyness can counsel "be silent," instead of speaking up to make things better.
  • Shame can counsel "be secret," instead of openly communicating to make things better.

When it comes to the management of emotions, the message from parents to their adolescent needs to be this: "Use your feelings to become informed, but use your thinking to decide what is best to do."

For more on this topic, see the chapter on "Emotion and Conflict" in my book, Stop the Screaming.