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Fostering Adolescent Emotional Expression (This One is for Professionals and Parents Alike)

Teenagers are famously rough around the edges when expressing emotions. Being able to express emotions verbally is critical for mental wellness, empowering growth and change, and is very much a developing skill set for adolescents. Even we as adults can miss the mark when expressing our emotions. So why, when teens raise their voice or emote intensely, do we react as if they are simply behaving badly?

Here are some ways to encourage the development of effective emotional expression:

Remember the Teen Brain is Not Fully Developed

One important characteristic of the teen brain is the competition between the overactive Amygdala (emotional center) and the underdeveloped Prefrontal Cortex (thinking things through, planning, organizing and anticipating consequences). Think about the teen brain as a Ferrari engine (emotions) with a Studebaker braking system (thinking). It is an unequal match and an accident waiting to happen.   This thinking part of the brain is not fully developed until at least age 25. Patience and realistic expectations can help us tame our emotional reactions in response to theirs.

Differentiate Tone and Tenor from Actual Words

I can’t tell you how many times I have asked a teen if they expressed the anger they feel to their parents, teachers, or other authority figure, and the answer much of the time is “No”. When I ask why, the typical response is that when they have tried, the adult yells back and tells them they are being disrespectful! Before reacting to a teen’s emotional expression with limits and a show of authority, try hearing them out until they are finished. Think about whether their words were in fact disrespectful (did they call you names, curse at you, or engage in threatening words or actions)? If they were, let them know you want to understand how they feel and what they need but cannot continue a conversation or hear them effectively when they are (name the behavior).   If the tone or level of loudness is what feels difficult, try to stay with them, hear them, and validate the underlying emotions. Check to make sure your understanding matches their emotional experience. When teens hear themselves reflected in the responses of valued adults, they feel understood, and an important competency is being developed. They are learning to use emotional expression to get their needs met. With appropriate feedback on ways to be more effective expressing emotions, they can shape this behavior over time.

Watch Their Feet, Not Their Mouth (Actions Speak Louder Than Words)

Teens do not like to be told what to do. At the same time, they are conflicted by their deep need to please adults important to them. This internal conflict often plays out by the adolescent screaming, yelling, or complaining, all the while, doing what is being asked. They may not be doing it exactly on our timeline or in the manner we would, though they are moving toward the goal. Take the example of asking a student to rewrite a paper, or if parents ask their teen to take the trash to the curb. There may be verbal protests or debate, but if they are taking the steps to carry out the requested behavior, where are we going to put our focus? Getting into arguments about what is coming out of their mouths (as irritating as it may be), will surely derail the progress toward their feet moving in the direction of expectations. Next time this happens, try to focus on their compliance and ignore or tune out the expressive “noise”. This serves 2 purposes. It avoids conflict, and by ignoring the undesired expressions, we are in fact extinguishing that behavior. Once they have completed the task, thank and praise them. For an added bonus in relationship cred, validate the thoughts or emotions underlying their protest (“I know you really struggled through rewriting that paper, and I am so glad you did because look how much your writing improved!”)

It can be easy for adults to confuse adolescent emotional expression with disrespect or the challenging of authority. Before we scold teens when they are expressing anger, frustration, or upset, let’s think about the value of allowing them an emotional outlet, even when it feels unpleasant to be on the receiving end of their negative emotions.

-Julie Baron, LCSW-C