Helping Your Adolescent Manage Increased Emotional Intensity

Adolescent change increases the power of feelings in decision-making

Posted May 02, 2016

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

Adolescence often arouses more emotional intensity than childhood.

Displays of strong feeling, like upset conveyed by a sullen mood or sudden outburst or impulsive action, tend to become more common with puberty and the onset of other adolescent changes. “Our teenager’s emotions keep flaring up. Why is he so sensitive now!”  

Before resorting to some psycho-active medication to moderate what’s going on, try some self-management education like counseling first, or at least in conjunction with whatever is prescribed. Medication is momentary, but understanding lasts. 

For starters, consider just ten common ways adolescence, particularly early and mid-adolescence (ages 9 – 15), can become a more emotionally loaded passage than childhood.

FRUSTRATION: at a more freedom loving and impatient age, delay and denial of gratification can become harder to bear.

ANGER: at a time when fair and sensitive treatment is more important, it is easier to feel embarrassed, offended, hurt, and wrongly treated.

ANXIETY: as entry into a larger world of life experience opens up, it is natural to feel daunted by new challenges and dangers that await.

EXCITEMENT: Interest and curiosity drive experimentation as taking risks for the thrill of adventure becomes alluring.

EMBARRASSMENT: increased sensitivity and physical self-consciousness come with puberty when hormonal and bodily changes begin the process of sexual maturation.

CONFUSION: with one’s internal and external worlds growing more complex, it is easier to be distracted and disorganized.

SADNESS: as growing up requires more giving up of old interests and attachments, inevitable losses must be borne. 

DISAPPOINTMENT: as inviting and applying and competing for wants become more frequent, failure and rejection become more common too.

BOREDOM: emptiness of interest and entrapment in disinterest result from not knowing what to do with oneself and from having to do what is disliked.

STRESS: As the field of world experience gets larger, sources of demand increase, and stress from pressure of over-demand becomes more frequent.

LONELINESS: detaching from childhood, family, and parents, it is easy to feel disconnected from what and who one loves.

Because adolescence can often be an emotionally bruising passage, it is often a test of courage that parents need to recognize. “Even though you’re feeling down from not getting what you wanted, we believe it was really brave of you to try.  As far as we’re concerned, you more than made it on that score.”

An important growth task of adolescence is learning skills to self-manage strong emotion. Here are a several simple approaches to teaching these skills that parents might use, first to help their teenager recover from an unhappy mood, second to learn from an impulsive outburst, and third to instruct about emotion.

ALTERING AN UNHAPPY MOOD

A young person can get stuck in an unhappy mood when painful emotion takes stubborn hold. Of course, sometimes just finding an empathetic hearing can ease unhappiness. "You don't have to fix me, just give me a listen!" Reporting can bring relief. In addition, since feelings are accompanied by associated thoughts and actions, parents can suggest exploiting those connections to promote possible choices for change. Sometimes changing thinking or behaving differently can alter feeling.

So when it comes to mental set, parents can ask: “If you were feeling happier, what kinds of thoughts might you have about your life?  When the young person describes a more appreciative or optimistic outlook, parents can suggest trying those.

So when it comes to current conduct, parents can ask, “If you were feeling happier, how would you choose to act?” When the young person describes some positive activities like exercising and socializing, parents can suggest trying those.

“To change how you feel, share your feelings, or experiment with how you think or act.”

LEARNING FROM AN IMPULSIVE OUTBURST

When a blow-up has occurred, in an incident of slamming or storming or yelling for example, it is often in response to something apparently small. Rather than dismiss the outburst as an overreaction best forgotten, it is usually better to take the time to understand what it may have to teach.  So help the young person take the time to debrief the episode to reveal what may be emotionally the matter. Consider five possibilities.

Something Specific has been said or done that hurt. “When you teased me it wasn’t funny!”

Something was Suppressed and allowed to build up. “I couldn’t take any more criticism after today!”

Something Similar to a painful past occurred. “This was just like when no one listened to me before!”

Something Symbolic occurred. “This just goes to show how you have never taken me seriously!”

Something Surprising happened. “I wasn’t expecting this kind of response from you!”

Little provocations that arouse disproportionate responses are usually big things in disguise. When the response seems to be an overreaction, the cause not obviously apparent, it is usually worth discussing to find out.

One reason why adolescents can be prone to overreactions is because self-consciousness and desire for privacy can feed a need to emotionally conceal what is going on. Showing one’s felt side can feel too vulnerable for comfort. It may not fit the image of strength and wellbeing the more independent young person wants to show the world. Emotional self-disclosure may even be considered a sign of weakness. Parents might offer a different view: “Sharing your feelings is a sign of strength.”

IINSTRUCTING ABOUT EMOTION

Finally, it’s well for parents to place emotion in a constructive context.  They might explain the functional role of emotion, perhaps like this.

“Feelings are very informative because they provide sensitivity. Part of your affective awareness system, they can identify when something significant is occurring in your inner or outer world of experience. For example, on the feeling unhappy side, anger can detect violations, frustration can detect blockage, fear can detect danger, and grief can detect loss. On the feeling happy side, gratitude can reflect appreciation, love can reflect devotion, joy can reflect fulfillment, and curiosity can reflect interest.

“Not only does emotion take notice, it also arouses energy (one’s potential for doing or action) to deal with whatever is going on. For example, anger can stimulate you to deal with a violation of safety or well-being (feeling wronged or mistreated), and energize you to make a reflective (thoughtful), expressive (communicative), protective (defensive), or corrective (aggressive) response.

“However, emotions can mislead when they are allowed to impel hasty action without considering what is right and wise. For example, immediately attacking when angry or avoiding when frightened or forcing a situation when frustrated can sometimes make matters worse.

“Bottom line: while feelings can be very good informants, they can also be very bad advisors.  So, don't 'think' with your feelings.  Instead, notice what experience your feelings are responding to, but then consult your judgment before deciding how to act.”   

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

Next week’s entry: Early Adolescence, Loss of Confidence, and Fears of Trying