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How to Help Teens Manage Emotions

A day in the life of a teenager can feel like an emotional rollercoaster– for them and for their parents. Teens sometimes shift rapidly from elation to frustration, excitement to anxiety, and joy to despair, and those feelings are often complex and confusing. Emotional intensity is normal during adolescence, says psychologist Erik Nook, and so is “more murkiness in what emotions one is feeling.” But with a few simple tools, teens can learn to self-regulate when their feelings run away with them. Here are our six top techniques to help teens navigate the emotional highs, lows, twists and turns.
1. Practice Bubble Breathing
Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, a network of nerves that helps the body relax after periods of stress. Taking deep, slow breaths immediately lowers the heart rate, releases muscle tension, and delivers oxygen to the brain, so teens feel calmer and think more clearly. Teach teens to try bubble breathing as soon as they notice they’re feeling dysregulated: Breathe in slowly through your nose for 4 seconds. Then breathe out slowly through your mouth for 6 seconds, imagining that you’re blowing a big bubble. Repeat as many times as you need to feel more relaxed and in control.
 
2. Label Your Emotions
Emotional differentiation – the ability to separate and identify different emotions – is associated with better mental health and more positive coping strategies. A recent study found that teens demonstrate less emotional differentiation than younger children or adults, probably because our emotions get more complex as we get older but it takes time for the brain to develop the skills of self-regulation. Differentiation starts with “naming and claiming” emotions. Help your teen master this skill by giving them a rich vocabulary to describe their feelings. The Periodic Table of Human Emotions poster is a fun way to help teens articulate exactly what they’re feeling.
 
3. Ask “What’s the Message?”
Emotions are messages, and all emotions – even the difficult ones – are valuable. Remind your teen of all the ways emotions guide us and provide information: They help us understand when a boundary has been crossed or a situation isn’t safe. They allow us to empathize and connect with others, and let us know when we need to have compassion for ourselves. Teach teens that once they know what they’re feeling, they can ask themselves, “What’s the message here?” When the message behind an emotion is clear, teens make decisions about how to act from a more empowered place.
 
4. Remember: You’re Not Your Feelings
Think about how we usually express emotions: “I’m so happy!” or “I’m angry right now.” When feelings run high, it’s easy to feel like we are whatever emotion we’re experiencing. Teens need to know that they are much more than their emotions. To remind them, teach them this mindfulness metaphor: Watch how your feelings come and go like the weather. Some days the sky is sunny and sometimes it’s stormy. But behind the weather, it’s always calm, still, and peaceful. You are like the sky, and your emotions are like the weather.
 
5. Vent the Right Way
Mad, stressed, or anxious teens often want to let it all out, but venting can make the situation worse if it’s not done in the right way. Psychologist Jill Suttie says “encouraging people to act out their anger makes them relive it in their bodies, strengthening the neural pathways for anger and making it easier to get angry the next time around… the same is true of grief or anxiety following trauma… If we simply relive our experience without finding some way to soothe ourselves or find meaning, it could extend our suffering.” Teens need to learn how to calm chaotic emotions, stay focused on solutions, avoid amplifying drama, and talk to someone they trust to help them work it out.
 
6. Affirm Your Strengths, Values and Purpose
When emotions are all over the place, teens need to know they have a solid foundation that doesn’t shift. Grounding can be found in remembering their positive qualities and all the things that make their lives meaningful. Research shows that writing down affirmations about core values, sense of purpose, and personal strengths improves self-esteem and self-regulation. Encourage your teen to make a list that includes five things that give them purpose, their top five values, and five strengths they appreciate in themselves, then post it where they’ll see it often. When they feel overwhelmed by emotions, reading the list will help them find their footing. 


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