The teenage years can be difficult for many reasons.2,5,9 Teens are often trying to fit in. They want to make their own decisions and explore the unknown. They sometimes take risks.4,5 While some easily settle on their identity, others struggle to find their purpose.11 Struggling teens may show signs of unhealthy emotional regulation. This means that they do not know how to handle or manage their strong emotions.1,6,9,12 If they do not manage emotion well, they can develop depressive symptoms. For example, they might have periods of sadness or of fear. Research shows teens that do not manage their emotions well are more likely to be involved in a variety of unhealthy behaviors.13
Teens learn how to handle their emotions through a variety of influences. They learn through social media, culture, friends, religion, parents, school, or authoritative figures.2,10,12 Out of all these, parents are one of the most influential.1,4 Teens learn by observing. They learn by listening. Parents may be unaware that their teens learn how to handle emotions just by watching them.
Teaching teenagers how to handle their hard emotions can be difficult. But helping them understand their emotions will also help them steer clear of feeling depressive symptoms. The following provides some ideas about why emotional regulation is important for teenagers. Parents will also find helpful tips on how to teach their teens these skills.
What Is Emotional Regulation?
Regulating emotions is the ability to understand, accept, and manage one’s emotions. This skill helps to avoid greater distress.7,13 Examples of positive emotional exercises include:
- Giving yourself space
- Talking yourself through an event
- Speaking with a safe individual about your emotions
- Writing down feelings in a journal
These practices can help to separate the actual emotion from the self. This means that the individual can understand that emotions do not define self-worth. Understanding this can increase confidence. Confidence in emotions can replace feelings of hopelessness or confusion.6,13
Some teens don’t know the difference between feeling angry and being an angry person. They assume that negative feelings are associated with their personal value. They can feel guilty or confused. Teens try to avoid those feelings by participating in a variety of coping behaviors.
Examples of unhealthy coping behaviors include:
- Overuse of technology
- Excessive time with friends1,3,5,9,12,13
Teens often turn to these activities to distract them from whatever uncomfortable feelings they have. Those who participate in these behaviors may also show signs of depressive symptoms.
Symptoms of depression can include:
- Lack of motivation
- Frequent anger
- Lower performance in normal activities
- Excessive sadness
- Comments of self-criticism.
Understandably, finding these symptoms in a teenager can be concerning. Fortunately, teens can learn how to better handle their emotions.5,6,13 Below are examples of how parents can influence their teen and then help them.
Negative Parental Responses
Society often shapes the way both parents and teenagers view emotions. It teaches how men and women “are supposed to” express feelings. Men are encouraged to express anger. They are also expected to suppress tears and other emotions. Women, on the other hand, are shown as emotional messes, but are discouraged to show any signs of anger. These attitudes can be harmful to how parents teach and show emotions to their teenagers.
Anger, fear and sadness are often viewed negatively in society. Because of this, parents can develop negative attitudes toward those emotions.7 Parents might neglect or dismiss negative emotions expressed by their teenager.13,6,7 For example, a teenager could come home from school and clearly shows signs of emotional distress. Unaware of the harm, parents might judge the emotion as a typical, dramatic display from a teenager. They may just treat the event as unimportant.
This type of response can teach the teenager that his or her emotions are not important.7,8,11 As teens realize this, they may start to treat themselves poorly. When they feel those emotions again, they will learn to ignore them, just like the parent did. So, although it may be unintentional, these messages can be very harmful during teen development.8
While some parents unintentionally influence their teens, other parents may directly force their beliefs of emotions on their teen. For example, some parents punish their teenager for expressing negative emotions. Teenagers can feel punished when parents give criticism, rejection, angry comments, or threats aimed toward negative emotions.8,13 With this type of parenting, a parent might say, “You’re such a cry baby” or “Until you can start acting more mature, you can’t hang out with your friends”.
Teens can see these punishments as a reflection of their personal worth. They classify their emotions as “wrong”. This is how unhealthy emotional regulation begins.
Signs of unhealthy regulation may include:
- Low self-esteem
- Uncertainty in expression
- Emotional withdrawal
These can also be signs of depressive symptoms.8
Research also shows that teens feel more depressive symptoms when parents try to manipulate their emotions.5,8,11 Manipulation can happen when parents encourage teenagers to suppress certain emotions. They may simply tell them to “get over it.” Teens will feel forced to suppress emotions. They can start to feel uncomfortable with themselves. This creates barriers toward greater emotional management.1,5,8
Again, these parenting styles may not always be intentional. Many loving parents are unaware that their frustrations with their teen’s emotions can cause unhealthy emotional behaviors and greater risk for depressive symptoms. There are ways to improve and help teenagers practice better emotional management.
What Parents Can Do
Respond both Positively and Compassionately
When parents respond positively toward teen’s emotions, teens’ coping strategies improve. Teenagers learn to understand that emotions are not bad.
Positive responses include:
- Warm comments (e.g. “I hear you, that sounds hard”),4
- Acceptance of the emotion (e.g. “It’s okay to feel that way, we all feel like that sometimes”),1
- Supportive feedback (e.g. “When you’re ready, let’s talk about what we can do together to help you”).8
It may not always work perfectly. Teenagers can sometimes react poorly to these efforts. Over time, however, your positive efforts can help. Teens will likely improve in how they handle their emotions. This will also help to protect them against depressive symptoms.4,12 They will start to feel less scared of their own emotions and more confidence in how to manage them.13
Indeed, it can be easy to misunderstand what teenagers are truly feeling. For example, sometimes people believe that depression is not real. It is a common belief that depressive symptoms are made up by the individual experiencing it. These judgements can make teenagers feel alone, ignored, misunderstood, and rejected.8 Trusting teenagers’ feelings is an important part of responding positively to their emotions.
Many rebellious behaviors come from feeling hard emotions. Try to sincerely ask teens why they do their coping activity. Learn their perspective. This can help parents understand their teen’s behavior. As teens notice loving interest in their feelings, they will learn to trust their parents more.12 Parents can learn to respect their teen’s emotions. Then they can find opportunities to teach emotional regulation strategies. This mindset can help to develop closer relationships between parents and their teens.6
In addition, teen’s depressive symptoms are more likely to improve when parents try to understand teen’s emotions. Parents will also learn to develop more positive attitudes about emotions.4,12
Help Teens Regulate Their Emotions
It can be easy to forget to teach teens how to handle emotions. In fact, many parents assume that teens should already know how to handle their emotions when they are in High School. So, many parents forget to teach emotional skills.10 However, research shows the opposite. With a constant flow of media and social trends, teens need more and more help to understand their emotions.
So, if teens are having trouble with their emotions, teach them how to handle them. This method is called emotional coaching. There are a variety of ways in which parents can coach their adolescent through his or her emotions:*,7
- Show, by example, that you accept your own negative emotions
- Verbally let your teenager know that his or her emotions do not define his or her personal worth
- Let your teenager openly express sadness without showing signs of your own discomfort.
- When your teenager expresses anger, sadness, or fear, calmly acknowledge the validity of those emotions so they know that you are not questioning those emotions.
- Repeat back to your teenager that you hear exactly how they are feeling.
- Teach your teenager to write down his or her feelings in a journal in order to process them.
- Talk your teenager through solutions that could help them feel better.
- Teach your teenager when it is and is not appropriate to express certain negative emotions. For example, it is best to express deep emotions with a safe individual, rather than in public.
- Most importantly, let your teenager know that you love them, even if they are feeling excessive sadness, anger, or fear. Your love for them, despite how they may be feeling, is the biggest sign to them that you accept them for who they are.
Teenagers who receive these direct coaching strategies improve in many aspects. They are more likely to develop healthy relationships. Many teens also develop emotional knowledge and self-control. And they seem to improve in self-esteem, overall stress, and academic achievement.5,6,7,12 Coaching teenagers through their emotions can help prevent them from experiencing depressive symptoms.13
Overall, teenagers are influenced by a variety of factors that shape the way they handle emotions. These influences create attitudes that effect the way teens see themselves. Parents are one of the biggest influences for teens’ emotional development. Because of this, parents should be more aware that their responses can affect adolescent mental health.7 As teens experience hard emotions, parents can successfully coach them through their experience. This can ultimately help to avoid more depressive symptoms in teenagers.
For Further Reading:
*Gottman, J., (1998). Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. Simon & Schuster.
Written by Kaylin Cash, and edited by Professors Julie Haupt, Adam Rogers, and Stephen F. Duncan, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. February 19, 2020.
- Allen, N. B., Kuppens, P., & Sheeber, L. B. (2012). Heart rate responses to parental behavior in depressed adolescents. Biological Psychology, 90(1), 80-87.
- Barry, C. M., Christofferson, J. L., Boorman, E. P., & Nelson, L. J. (2019). Profiles of religiousness, spirituality, and psychological adjustment in emerging adults. Journal of Adult Development.
- Coyne, S. M., Stockdale, L., & Summers, K. (2019). Problematic cell phone use, depression, anxiety, and self-regulation: Evidence from a three year longitudinal study from adolescence to emerging adulthood. Computers in Human Behavior, 96, 78–84.
- Crandall, A., Ghazarian, S. R., Day, R. D., & Riley, A. W. (2016). Maternal emotion regulation and adolescent behaviors: The mediating role of family functioning and parenting. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 45(11), 2321-2335.
- Houtepen, J. A. B. M., Sijtsema, J. J., Klimstra, T. A., Van, d. L., & Bogaerts, S. (2019). Loosening the reins or tightening them? Complex relationships between parenting, effortful control, and adolescent psychopathology. Child & Youth Care Forum, 48(1), 127-145.
- Hunter, E. C., Katz, L. F., Shortt, J. W., Davis, B., Leve, C., Allen, N. B., & Sheeber, L. B. (2011). How do I feel about feelings? Emotion socialization in families of depressed and healthy adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40(4), 428–441.
- Hurrell, K. E., Houwing, F. L., & Hudson, J. L. (2017). Parental meta-emotion philosophy and emotion coaching in families of children and adolescents with an anxiety disorder. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 45(3), 569-582.
- Johnco, C., & Rapee, R. M. (2018). Depression literacy and stigma influence how parents perceive and respond to adolescent depressive symptoms. Journal of Affective Disorders, 241, 599-607.
- Lybbert, R., Ryland, S., & Bean, R. (2019). Existential interventions for adolescent suicidality: Practical interventions to target the root causes of adolescent distress. Children and Youth Services Review, 100, 98–104.
- Scherr, S., Mares, M.-L., Bartsch, A., & Götz, M. (2018). On the relevance of parents and TV as socializers of 6–19 year-olds’ expressions of emotion: Representative data from Germany. Journal of Children and Media, 12(1), 33–50.
- Schwartz, O. S., Simmons, J. G., Whittle, S., Byrne, M. L., Yap, M. B. H., Sheeber, L. B., & Allen, N. B. (2017). Affective parenting behaviors, adolescent depression, and brain development: A review of findings from the orygen adolescent development study. Child Development Perspectives, 11(2), 90-96.
- Shortt, J. W., Katz, L. F., Allen, N. B., Leve, C., Davis, B., & Sheeber, L. B. (2016). Emotion socialization in the context of risk and psychopathology: Mother and father socialization of anger and sadness in adolescents with depressive disorder. Social Development, 25(1), 27-46.
- Trent, E. S., Viana, A. G., Raines, E. M., Woodward, E. C., Storch, E. A., & Zvolensky, M. J. (2019). Parental threats and adolescent depression: The role of emotion dysregulation. Psychiatry Research, 276, 18-24.
When teens face powerful emotions such as anger, anxiety, fear, sadness, pain, or grief, they may find these emotions difficult to manage, especially when they have been avoiding those emotions for years. The For the Strength of Youth pamphlet teaches that emotional health is connected to spiritual well-being. This means that teens who find difficulty processing their emotions may also feel distant from the love Heavenly Father has for them. Because of the fall of Adam and Eve, it is natural to experience opposition (2 Nephi 2:11) through life’s challenges. However, when teens feel that this opposition is impossible to handle emotionally, it is important for them to remember how the Savior can assist them.
Studying the Savior’s life and applying His example can help teens understand how to properly process difficult emotions.1 Through the Atonement, the Savior can repair any emotional imbalance teens may face. He handled difficult emotions perfectly. He helps us overcome times when it feels like emotions are too much to bear. Activities such as reading about the Savior’s life in the scriptures, prayer, and personal revelation can help teens recognize that Christ has felt every emotion they are facing and that He knows perfectly how to help them through their difficulties. By learning of Christ, teens will be able to seek guidance from the Spirit in order to understand how the Savior’s experiences can help them personally.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught that the Savior “comprehends perfectly and personally the full range of human suffering.”2 For example, He knows what depression feels like. As recorded in Matthew 26:37: He “began to be sorrowful and very heavy.” While in the Garden of Gethsemane He felt weak and helpless as He “fell on his face” (Matthew 26:39). He experienced loneliness when He cried to His Father, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). He “descended below all things and comprehend[s] all things” (D&C 88:6-7). Because Christ descended below all things, He completely understands every difficult emotion felt by humanity. Even Isaiah describes the Savior as a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3)
The Savior overcame these difficult emotions because He focused on fulfilling the will of His Father in Heaven (Luke 2:49). Youth too can receive this power as they center their lives in Christ. President Russell M. Nelson stated that “the joy we feel has little to do with the circumstances of our lives, and everything to do with the focus of our lives.”3 As teens concentrate on the power of the Savior, they will feel His empathy for their difficult emotions and help them overcome their deepest pains (Alma 7:11-12). Creating a Christ-centered life will not only help teenagers remember the power the Atonement has in their life, but also give them an opportunity to strengthen their personal relationship with Him.
Parents can play a role in helping their teenagers understand the range of emotions they feel. The Family: A Proclamation To The World teaches, “Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness.”4 Parents, church leaders, and mental health professionals are essential gifts the Lord has provided to help His children overcome their challenges.
An essential step in helping teenagers manage their emotions is to love them. When it comes to helping teenagers develop emotional self-reliance, displaying Christlike love for them is essential. Since charity accesses the pure love of Christ, parents who act with charity help teens feel connected to the Savior. Indeed, “Charity never faileth” (1 Corinthians 13:8; Moroni 7:46). Listening and comforting your teen is a powerful way to show love. With the Savior’s guidance, as you allow teens to express their emotions and appreciate their challenges and their feelings, you can be inspired to offer the very help that is needed.
Elder Jeffery R. Holland shared that “it is only an appreciation of [His] divine love that will make our own lesser suffering first bearable, then understandable, and finally redemptive.”5 As parents and teens understand the power of God’s love, they will be able to overcome the trials they face. His divine love has the capacity to help us grow and become more like Him. With the Savior’s help, teens will be able to bear their difficult emotions and navigate even their darkest times.
Written by Emma Allen, edited by professors Julie H. Haupt and Stephen F. Duncan, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. February 19, 2020.
- Nelson, N. (2018, October). Sister’s participation in the gathering of Israel. Ensign.
- Maxwell, N. (1997, October). Apply the atoning blood of Jesus Christ. Ensign.
- Nelson, N. (2016, October). Joy and spiritual survival. Ensign.
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Family: A Proclamation to the World.
- Holland, J. (2013, October). Like a broken vessel. Ensign.