The teen years are known for intense emotions with good reason. First, the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain in charge of reasoning, logic and impulse control – is still developing in teens. Second, the hormones that spark puberty’s physical changes also amp up activity in the emotional and reward-seeking centers of the brain. Finally, teens are navigating more complex relationships with peers and are more highly attuned to what others think of them. All of these factors mean that teens’ feelings really are bigger and do fluctuate more frequently. That’s why emotional regulation skills are critical in any teen’s self-care toolkit.
Why Emotional Regulation is Key
Emotional regulation is the ability to effectively manage emotions. It includes:
- Being able to self-reflect
- Feel emotions without being overwhelmed by them
- Dial down the intensity of negative feelings
- Cultivate positive feelings, and
- Feel in control of emotional experiences.
According to a brief from the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy, teens with good emotional regulation skills are better at:
- dealing with stress and frustration,
- persisting, problem-solving and delaying gratification to achieve goals,
- demonstrating compassion and concern for others in their decisions, and
- seeking help when they’re overwhelmed by stress or in a dangerous situation.
Research also suggests that emotional regulation protects teens’ long-term mental health. A 2019 study published in Brain Science found that emotional regulation skills mediate the effects of stressful life events and childhood adversity on teens’ risk for anxiety disorders and depression.
The bottom line? Emotional regulation helps teens build emotional resilience. But, because there are so many biological, neurological and social factors affecting teens’ emotions, it’s important to put a plan in place to help them gain tools. Here are three strategies to focus on:
- Practice self-awareness.
The first step in regulating emotions is being able to “name and claim” them. Teens need to know it’s ok to feel their feelings – even the uncomfortable ones. Teach your teen that emotions are information. While emotions can help teens take care of themselves and make good decisions, they\’re not permanent or reflective of who they are as individuals. Self-awareness also means identifying what triggers negative emotions and nurtures positive ones, and taking responsibility for practicing emotional self-care.
- Reframe negative thoughts and self-talk.
Emotions are closely linked to thoughts and self-talk; for example, a thought like “Everybody else thought that class was easy, but I didn’t understand anything. I’m so dumb,” can lead to feelings of shame, anxiety and fear. Reframing teaches teens to notice their negative, self-defeating thoughts and self-talk and switch to a more positive, self-compassionate and empowering perspective: “I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s struggling. I know I can get this. I’ll ask my teacher for help tomorrow.”
Future-focusing teaches teens to imagine future stressful scenarios, like bumping into an ex at school or taking a big test, and map out strategies to help themselves stay calm. They can walk through a challenging situation in their minds, decide what tools they will use and picture a successful outcome. Future-focusing can also mean planning a reward for completing a tough task, like taking 10 minutes of downtime for every hour of studying. Focusing on the future empowers teens to handle stressors proactively and positively.
And here’s a fun Spark tool from the Lucero app:
Spark has over 600 self-care ideas for 30 different emotions! One of our favorites: When your teen is dealing with a tough emotion, ask “What would you say to someone else who felt _____?” How would you help them feel better?” This simple Q&A helps teens build a toolkit of proactive solutions, and sometimes it’s easier to handle a difficult emotion when we imagine it from a different perspective.