Teenage emotions are notoriously volatile, ranging from angry to sullen and all points in between, sometimes in the space of a single day. In part, the intensity and unpredictability of teen emotions can be attributed to an immature brain. The emotion-driven amygdala overcomes the rational power of a teen’s developing frontal cortex.
However, emotional dysregulation (the inability to manage one’s emotions appropriately in a range of situations) can also be a hallmark of many common mental health disorders. Building skills to support emotional regulation for kids can help prevent or improve these conditions. A recent review of studies on psychological interventions concludes that emotional regulation is key to moderating the effects of both anxiety and depression.
What are emotional regulation skills? And how can a parent support emotional regulation for kids and for older adolescents, to potentially head off a full-blown mental health disorder?
The Connection Between Emotions and Needs
A child’s or teen’s expression of emotions, even challenging ones such as anger or despair, is not inherently problematic. In fact, a developing child relies on the expression of emotion to get their needs met. Crying elicits help for needs an infant cannot meet on their own, such as nourishment or a clean diaper. Coos and giggles encourage a caregiver to continue an activity the child finds rewarding.
For school-age children, emotions provide critical feedback for learning to navigate social relationships, and emotions can either support or undermine the attention and focus necessary for acquiring academic and life skills. For teens—engaged in the developmental process of forming an independent identity—negative emotions can be indicators that boundaries have been crossed, values compromised, or self-care needs (such as sleep) not met.
What Is Emotional Regulation?
Emotional regulation for kids, then, is not a matter of always feeling good. A degree of anxiety can be very helpful as one prepares for a presentation, for example. An appropriate level of distress can prevent us from needlessly exposing ourselves to danger. Anger can help motivate us to pursue our goals.
Rather than a rigid process of control, emotional regulation is the ability to move flexibly between emotional states, in ways that serve our needs and are appropriate for a given situation. Rigid emotional responses that do not vary with context are, in fact, characteristic of many psychological disorders.
What Causes Emotional Dysregulation in a Child?
Emotional dysregulation is a complex interplay between a person’s brain circuitry and their life experience. Sometimes genetic factors predispose a person to patterns characteristic of mental health disorders, such as bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder (also known as emotion regulation disorder). These genetic factors are difficult to pinpoint in children and adolescents, and those conditions are usually only diagnosed in adulthood.
Chronic stress and trauma early in life is clearly linked to emotional dysregulation in children and adolescents. Early childhood is a period of both rapid brain development and critical relationship formation. Trauma from abuse or neglect, especially when it is chronic, leaves neurological scars that linger in the form of high reactivity and low distress tolerance. Moreover, a child who has experienced abuse frequently lacks the sense of emotional safety that supports brain function, as well as a role model from whom to learn emotional regulation by example.
Trauma may also result from circumstances beyond a parent’s control—the trauma of poverty or living in an unsafe neighborhood, a family crisis that diverts attention from a developing child, or neurological differences in the child themself (autism-spectrum disorders, for instance). These types of traumas can also interfere with a child’s early emotional connections. And, of course, if a parent lacks tools for their own healthy emotional regulation, they will find it challenging to provide what they did not receive themselves.
Keys to Supporting Emotional Regulation for Kids and Teens
Skillful emotional regulation relies on several layers of awareness. It involves:
- Being able to identify our own emotions
- Accurately recognizing emotions in others
- Understanding the expectations of our social environment
- Learning how to express or suppress emotions in support of our own goals.
Emotional dysregulation in teens, younger children, and adults is natural and typical, to a degree. Most people—and almost all adolescents—experience episodes of emotional dysregulation from time to time. It becomes problematic when these turn into patterns that interfere with functioning—for example, the ability to focus attention or maintain relationships.
Emotional regulation and child development are supported by a problem-solving mindset: “How can I reinterpret this distressing situation?” The “reappraisal” strategy, as it’s called by researchers, includes cognitive tactics such as reframing negative thoughts, acceptance of things that cannot be changed, and self-compassion. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) effectively supports these and other related skills, and thus is particularly helpful for addressing emotional dysregulation in children and teens.
These approaches can help reduce the intensity of an uncomfortable emotion before it builds in strength. They are generally considered healthier than trying to distract from or suppress an emotion after it has already intensified. Studies have shown that people who use suppression strategies are more likely to have lower self-esteem, less life satisfaction, and more symptoms of depression. These approaches can sometimes be helpful in the short term, during a moment of acute dysregulation. But building emotional regulation for kids is more effective for long-term well-being.
How to Help a Child with Self-Regulation
Psychologist Alice Boyes identifies 10 emotional regulation skills that a person should have developed by adulthood:
- Identifying which specific emotions you’re feeling.
- Identifying which specific emotions someone else is feeling.
- The ability to start and persist in pursuing goals even when you feel anxious.
- The ability to tolerate awkwardness.
- The ability to have intimate conversations rather than stonewall, avoid, or flee.
- The ability not to crumble when someone is pressuring you.
- The ability to soothe your own emotions.
- The ability to soothe other people’s emotions.
- The ability to not go over the top with positive emotion.
- The ability to delay gratification.
Fortunately, there are ways that parents and caregivers can consciously support children and teens to develop these self-regulation skills.
5 Steps for Parents to Address Emotional Dysregulation in a Child
Many adults struggle with emotional regulation skills—sometimes even the most basic, such as identifying the specific emotions they are feeling. But even so, they can still help their kids learn skills that support emotional regulation and child development. The most essential requirements for strengthening emotional regulation in kids include:
Compassion, for both themselves and their child. Compassion fosters a sense of connection rather than division. (Learn more about how to practice compassion.) The cognitive reappraisal strategies noted above (the healthiest approach to emotion regulation) are a function of the frontal cortex. Already undependable in an immature teenage brain, the frontal cortex goes offline for all of us when we get defensive. The sense of connection fostered by compassion can help keep both parent and child in a rational, problem-solving mindset.
Curiosity. Take a moment to get curious about what unmet need a teen’s emotion may reveal, even if it’s coming out “sideways.” This step can help meet your teen’s need to feel heard and understood, a universal human need. (See our tips for how to be an active listener.) That does not mean you have to capitulate to a teen’s every demand. But curiosity will go a long way towards maintaining a sense of connection with your child and helping them access their capacity for reason before it goes completely offline as they are overwhelmed by emotion.
Circling back. Did emotions—yours or your teen’s—overwhelm an interaction? You can revisit the issue, as long as you bring your compassion and curiosity with you. Start by naming as many positives about your teen as you can to keep the discussion feeling safe—ideally at least three—before you introduce a different perspective. Building emotional regulation in kids encompasses understanding through experience that emotions are fluid and a rupture in a relationship can be repaired. This will be easier to practice on small ruptures before you try it during bigger blowups.
Creative communication. An intense emotional state can overwhelm a teen’s capacity to verbalize their thoughts. Get creative—sometimes it’s easier to find a metaphor for a situation than address it directly. (“Where are you on the roller coaster?” “How’s the weather for sailing today?”) Or perhaps your teen would rather write notes back and forth rather than have a face-to-face conversation. Try to establish a regular routine of checking in, so that it’s something that happens on good days as well as bad. (See our suggestions for how to do a teen temperature check.)
Cognitive skills. Model reflecting on your own emotional life. How you moderate your own thoughts and behaviors? Describe for your child instances in which you have shifted negative thinking, seen things from different perspectives, and practiced self-compassion. Your teen may not immediately engage in a similar level of reflection—remember, that is a function of their immature frontal cortex. But more will sink in than they may be willing or able to reveal in the moment.
How Mental Health Treatment Supports Emotional Regulation in Teens
Even with the best of intentions, old emotional patterns between a parent and child can be hard to dislodge because they are so deeply ingrained. A family may even have inherited the trauma responses of previous generations. Sometimes patterns of emotional dysregulation in teens—and a parent’s response—reach an intensity that is difficult to overcome without professional help.
At Newport Academy, treatment includes addressing the root causes of a teen’s emotional dysregulation. We regard a teen’s family as an essential part of the solution, and weekly family therapy sessions are an integral part of each client’s tailored treatment plan. In addition, teens learn and practice self-regulation skills that will serve them throughout their lives.
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