Years ago, when my now-teenage son was in the tantrum stage, I made a list of “10 Reasons We Misbehave”—something we could all easily memorize. It included all the usual triggers: being hungry, tired, angry, sad, anxious, jealous, and so on. Whenever he acted out, I would go down the list and ask, “Are you hungry? Are you mad?” Once he named one or two things, I would say something like, “Wow! No wonder you’re so upset!”
I found that identifying my son’s feelings helped him to regain control of his emotions.
This in turn helped me to empathize instead of just being annoyed at another outburst.
Now that he’s a young teenager, I find that his emotions are taking an even wilder rollercoaster ride—zipping from happiness to anger to worry and back again. And it’s far too easy for me to react in kind. I often find myself bringing up that old list as a way to help us both regain equilibrium.
It turns out that helping teens to identify and regulate their emotions is an important step in their development—one that can help them into adulthood and protect their mental health. For example, teenagers who can accurately describe their negative emotions are better insulated against depression than those who can’t, according to a 2019 University of Rochester study.
Regulate Difficult Teenage Emotions
“All people in times of stress have trouble regulating their emotions,” says Dr. Ken Ginsburg, founder and program director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the author of Raising Kids to Thrive. “For teenagers, it’s an important issue because of the balancing act going on in their brain [between reason and emotion]. One of the great myths is that kids can’t be rational. Not true.”
But getting teenagers to be rational often requires that parents have those skills themselves. That might mean learning how to stay calm with—or walk away from—a sullen or angry teenager rather than engaging in a war of words.
“During adolescence and the tween years, negative feelings will spike very quickly. And they’ll stay higher longer than during other development stages, such as toddlerhood,” says Marian Moldan, a licensed clinical social worker and principal of Childhood Anxiety Solutions in Miller Place, New York. “When that mood strikes, that is not the time to have a discussion or lay out your opposing view. The emotional part of the brain is employed to the extent that the person can’t even problem-solve. Once you bring that emotion down to a more manageable level, then you can have that discussion.”
In her practice, Moldan sometimes encourages teens to count backwards from 300—by sevens—when they’re heated. The request is so unusual, she says, that it often elicits a laugh or a scoff, shifting the heightened emotion. Engaging the intellectual part of their brain allows the emotional side to regulate, Moldan says.
She also recommends that parents help their tweens and teens develop a calming activity that they can turn to in times of stress, anger, or other heavy emotions. “I’m an avid knitter,” she says. “For a teen, it could be drawing, listening to music, writing in a journal, or going for a walk or a run. You want to build those habits so that the teen is able to say, ‘I’m angrier than I’ve been in a while; let me go write in my journal.’”
The ultimate goal, Ginsburg says, is “co-regulation”—where you and your teen are both regulating your emotions. “You need to stay calm when every fiber of your being is screaming within you,” he says. “That is when your teen needs to draw your calm from you. When you lecture, condescend, or yell, you are turning on the reactive part of their brain and that will dominate. But by mid-adolescence, kids can be as rational as adults if—and the emphasis is on the word ‘if’—the higher thinking powers dominate.”