Emotion regulation is the process by which we consciously and unconsciously strive to manage the range of emotions we may experience at any given time. The problem for some teens is that their emotions come too fast and too strong for them to effectively regulate, and instead they react impulsively, lose control, or use unhelpful ways to manage their emotions, such as drugs or avoidance. Emotion regulation can include tools for responding to anger, anxiety, stress, and interpersonal conflict. For teens struggling to manage their emotions effectively, they may find themselves in conflict with parents and peers, and small problems may quickly overwhelm and cause patterns of shame and self-blame.
To increase emotion regulation we need to help teens increase their awareness, decrease their vulnerability, and tolerate distress in a way that decreases suffering. We can utilize skills like mindfulness to help gain awareness that allows for acceptance of one’s emotions. I purposefully use the word “skills” because I want my clients and their parents to see that these are things that can be developed through teaching, rehearsal, and application in one’s life. We more easily see academic and athletic skills as requiring this process, and give less attention to skills needed to manage strong emotions like anger, rejection, and fear. Some teens have trouble separating who they are from how they handle their emotions, and therefore feel shame that can lead to greater isolation. Using skills-based language can help teens to see emotion regulation as an area of weakness needing strengthening, just like academic skills that they find difficult to acquire.
Parents should work to label emotions and model healthy emotion regulation skills. Help your child notice when their emotion tank is getting full, and come up with options for lessening the pressure. Encourage practices that lessen vulnerability, including sufficient sleep, physical exercise, involvement in things that bring feelings of confidence and mastery, and avoiding drugs and alcohol. Be aware of your child’s emotional experience in different environments, such as school, work, or with friends. If they have significant negative emotions in a given environment, it may be helpful to find specific opportunities for emotion regulation in that context.