Teaching Teens Skills to Cope with Strong Emotions

Dealing with the emotions we feel inside is an important life skill that we all must develop. People who learn coping skills for managing their emotions have better relationships with others, report better well-being, and are more successful in their personal and professional lives.

Parents often complain that their teens’ over-the-top reactions to the smallest issues are infuriating, but there’s good reason for their strong emotions. The adolescent brain is still “under construction” particularly in the areas of impulse control, decision-making, and problem-solving. At the same time, teens are struggling with raging hormones that flip their emotions incredibly fast. If hormones and brain development weren’t enough, teens are dealing with an inordinate amount of pressure from schools, friends, parents, and dating partners in an environment where any of their mistakes could be broadcast on social media for all to judge. Honestly, it’s no wonder teens can’t seem to control their emotions.

But just because it’s hard for teens to control their emotions doesn’t mean they should be allowed to act like monsters. It just means that emotional control doesn’t come naturally or easily to them and they need parents, teachers, coaches, and other responsible adults to teach them how to cope with their wildly fluctuating feelings.

Here are tips for teaching teens skills for coping with their strong emotions:

1. Establish Clear Expectations

People are guided by the expectations of those around them. If your family or classroom expects people to yell every time they get mad or hide under the covers every time they get sad, then your teen will follow that example. Adults should role model appropriate behavior, establish clear rules, and set consequences for breaking those rules. It is important that your teen understands that the adults are in charge of the environment, as well as their own emotions.

2. Identify the Emotion

It can be very difficult for an adolescent to work out what they’re feeling when they are very upset. It’s important to label emotions. For example, if your teen does poorly on a test, they might be feeling disappointed, but they might tell you that their teacher is terrible or that they are too busy and stressed to study. You might say, ‘I think you might be feeling disappointed with that grade. What do you think?’

3. Accept the Feeling, but not the Behavior

Teens need to learn that feelings are not bad. Emotions are a part of life, and it’s perfectly natural to feel a variety of emotions and it’s okay to express those feelings. Respond with empathy and understanding. You might say, ‘that sounds really difficult,’ or ‘it’s okay to feel that way, we all feel like that sometimes.’ When parents respond positively toward teen’s emotions, teens’ coping strategies improve. However, accepting their emotions does not mean accepting poor behavior in response. For example, it’s okay for your teen to express how angry they are with their words, but it is not okay for them to physically lash out or threaten someone. Teens need to know that while they can’t control how they feel, they can and must control their response.

4. Sincerely Listen

When you listen without interrupting or judging, you are sending a powerful message to your teen that you care about what they think and feel, and that you’re willing to consider their viewpoint, even if you disagree. Allow them the freedom to say how they feel without being shamed or embarrassed. Express empathy for your child, and imagine yourself in your teen’s situation. Many times, repeating back what your teen says to you, or saying you can understand why they feel a certain way, will help them know that they are being heard and feel understood. Be careful of your tone, because the slightest hint of sarcasm, cynicism, judgment or insincerity will damage your efforts and relationship.

5. Avoid Correcting while your Teen is Emotional

When someone is emotional, they are not ready to hear what they should be doing better or how they should change. There will be a time to offer your child instruction or discipline, but it is when they are calm. Let your teen vent their emotions while you actively listen and express empathy. When your teen finally calms down, then you can offer problem-solving suggestions.

6. Encourage Coping Skills

Teens must have an arsenal of socially appropriate ways to deal with strong emotions in their back pocket. Following are positive coping skills your teen can use to calm big feelings:

  • Art. Studies show that drawing, dancing, reading, or playing/listening to music are all excellent methods for relaxation and expressing oneself in a constructive way.
  • Exercise. Taking a walk or run, working out at the gym, or getting into a favorite yoga pose can help people to calm down.
  • Relaxation techniques. Take slow deep breaths. Close your eyes and think about a person, place, or thing that makes you feel calm. Repeat a calming word or sentence. Consider practicing daily meditation. Say a few positive affirmations to yourself.
  • Journal. Writing down your thoughts helps you vent the emotions and process your thoughts. Sometimes writing down your frustrations or worries, and then balling up the paper and throwing it away, can help you get rid of the emotion.
  • Take a time-out. When you’re angry in a situation, taking a 15-minute break to calm down and gain self-control can diffuse anger. If your teen chooses to take a time-out when you are disagreeing, respect their space and maturity. Don’t follow him/her or insist on continuing the conversation while he/ she is still upset.

7. Teach Teens Problem-Solving Skills

Problem-solving is one of the most important skills anyone can learn. Parents and teachers should take the time to help teens develop this valuable skill set. Problem-solving helps teens identify the pros and the cons of potential solutions before taking action. If your teen understands that there are many possible solutions to a problem, he’s more likely to spend a few minutes examining his options rather than resorting to impulsive behavior. Help your teen think through the consequences of each possible solution and determine how his behavior will affect himself and those around him.

8. Role Model Appropriate Behavior

Youth learn how to deal with their feelings through example. Teens watch us more than we think and absorb our actions. Seeing how adults react in various situations is the most powerful teacher to your teen, so be sure to handle your own emotions appropriately. If you yell, swear, and break things when you’re angry, don’t expect your teen to control his/her anger. Demonstrate to your teen how to talk about emotions calmly. For example, you might say, “I’m really angry that you didn’t clean your room like I asked you to. I’m going to go take a break to calm down for a few minutes, and then, we’re going to talk about your consequence.” Show, by example, that you accept your own negative emotions and control your response.

Final Thoughts…

Have sympathy for teens who are dealing with a roller coaster of emotions. When a teenager expresses anger, sadness, or fear, calmly acknowledge the validity of those emotions and let them know that their feelings do not define their personal worth.

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