3 Ways to Help your Pre-Teen or Teen Manage Strong Emotions

By Sarah Saffold, MSW, LMSW

Parenting teens isn’t for the weak. Many times you will feel anything but strong as you navigate wave after wave of incidents, emotions, challenges. Some of these will rock your world and your teens; but helping them understand how to know what they’re feeling and then tolerate whatever emotions are present will lead to the ability to regulate the emotions without acting out. Wow, that’s a lot to digest, how do we tangibly do this?

  1. Start by talking to your children if you haven’t already about naming emotions. A good way to do this is to model it yourself by naming how you are feeling when you’ve had a bad day for example by stating “I am feeling sad, frustrated and really overwhelmed.” This will teach your child that it’s okay to talk about what they’re feeling and also to have the words in which to describe it. At dinner time, ask them to talk about an emotion from the high part of their day and then one from the low part of their day. Reflect back to them, “wow it sounds like you were really elated & happy when your friend gave you a compliment.” The more we can build emotions into our everyday language, the easier and more natural it becomes to describe how we are doing and feeling.
  1. Many of us tend to avoid negative feelings, to push them away, to try to control them in some format instead of just acknowledging them and letting them pass through us. We need to teach our teens that there are things that happen that we can’t do anything to change. Feeling anxious about a social situation at school is hard to tolerate, so many times we ruminate on thoughts about the situation, try to ignore it, or use other unhealthy coping mechanisms. Instead, we can just sit with our teen and not try to fix things. Instead tell them, “we don’t have to like what’s happening or even say it’s okay, but we can accept that we are feeling down or anxious and just allow those feelings to be there for the time being.” This increases emotional resiliency and the ability to watch emotions come like a wave that can pass through us. Rather than avoiding it only to have it show up again later or never learning how to sit with discomfort.
  1. The better we can get at sitting with emotions, the more space we have to use healthy emotion regulation skills. Here is a skill that can be useful when we feel stressed, anxious, angry, or overwhelmed. The STOP skill contains four concepts: Stop, Take a step back, Observe, Proceed mindfully. 
  • S: When you feel an overwhelming emotion you immediately stop, freeze your body and don’t make any decisions or say anything, just pause. 
  • T: Next, take a step back and notice what’s happening in your body and mind. Ask yourself, “How am I feeling right now? What do I feel in my body?”The more you do this, the better you will get at it.
  • O: Then you observe, just being curious without judgment. What is happening in this situation? Who is involved? What thoughts am I automatically having that might not be true about the situation? Am I thinking in worst case scenarios or black and white thinking? Do I have all the facts?
  • P: Lastly, we proceed mindfully. Have I thought this through now that I’ve paused and identified my emotions, body sensations, and thoughts? How do I move forward with success? Do I feel calm and am I using my wise mind rather than my emotional mind? If so, I can proceed.

All of this takes time to implement and learn, but with practice and clear steps, we can teach our teens to name, tolerate and regulate emotions on their own. Who knows, we parents may just learn something in the process.

To learn more and get coping skills, emotional regulation and mindfulness skills, consider signing up for our next Cultivating a Mindful Life with Your Daughter course at the Center that starts on June 10 on Thursday nights from 6-7pm for 8 weeks.

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