Riding the Roller Coaster: Emotion Regulation and the Teenage Brain

mother consoling teenage daughter

For any parent with a teenager, it comes as no surprise that the emotional lives of adolescents can be very different from adults. Teenagers tend to react to stressors (e.g., peer conflict, exams) more strongly, experience negative emotions more often, and experience more frequent and intense mood swings than adults. The ability to navigate and manage these sometimes intense and tumultuous emotions is essential for any teenager’s socioemotional functioning. These emotions are managed through a skill called emotion regulation. Broadly speaking, emotion regulation is the ability to modify high and low levels of an emotion, change one’s emotional experience, shift the timing of an emotional reaction, and change how one expresses their emotions.

During adolescence however, this may be a difficult task, as emotions tend to become more challenging and intense. Teens experience greater conflict with their parents, become more sensitive to their peer relationships, and are beginning to explore romantic relationships, all of which are emotionally intense experiences. In addition, the teenage brain is still developing, establishing and shifting neural pathways that will set them up for adulthood. Brain development, in combination with teenagers’ maturing behavioural and cognitive systems, makes adolescence a period when the regulatory systems in the body are reorganizing, adding a further challenge to the regulation of emotions.  At the same time youth are trying to figure out who they are, what they want out of life, and who they want to become–giving them a strong need for autonomy.  All of these tasks require youth to be able to effectively manage their emotions.

Youth with neurodevelopmental disorders, particularly ADHD, may have an even harder time regulating their emotions. Emotional dysregulation is one of the core components of ADHD and is often why children with this diagnosis show higher levels of frustration, impatience, and anger. This can largely be explained by increased impulsivity and compromised executive functioning (i.e., planning, impulse control, self-regulation) which leads to quicker emotional responses. This can play out as your teen being quick to yell or snap at you during arguments, or being prone to tears over seemingly small issues. In addition, youth with neurodevelopmental disorders tend to be about 30% less mature than their peers, meaning that their ability to regulate emotions may be somewhat behind that of other students their age. Parents may need to adjust their expectations of their child’s ability to regulate emotion and provide support for their teens who are developing these skills. It can even be difficult for children and youth with neurodevelopmental disorders to recognize their own and other’s emotions and so they may require additional support in developing emotional literacy (i.e., recognition of emotions).

What can go wrong with emotion regulation?

Both over-regulation and under-regulation of emotions can negatively impact a teenager’s socioemotional functioning. However, youth who show lower levels of emotion regulation have higher instances of mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and behavioural issues. Failure to develop effective emotion regulation skills also has implications for youths’ social functioning.  For example, it’s hard to get along with peers if you’re blowing up at them every time you get irritated.  This makes the development of effective emotion regulation skills one of the essential tasks of adolescence!

That being said, adolescents tend to use less effective emotion regulation strategies and coping skills than adults. For example, teens are less likely to engage in problem-solving and are less likely to ask for help. On top of that, teens are more prone to linger on negative emotions and are less likely to engage with positive emotions when they are feeling angry, sad, frustrated, or anxious. However, problematic emotion regulation becomes more concerning when youth are disengaging from activities they usually enjoy, are avoiding stressors in their lives (e.g., not studying for an upcoming exam), withdrawing, or generating negative thoughts about themselves (e.g., “I’m a bad person”, “I’m stupid”). It’s important to notice these red flags in your teen and take steps to ensure they don’t develop into further, more serious concerns.

What can go right with emotion regulation?

Research shows that teenagers who can effectively manage their emotions demonstrate more positive social behaviour, have better academic performance, and lower incidences of mental illness and peer victimization.  The most effective emotion regulation occurs when teens use effective coping strategies. For example, problem-focused coping, the use of problem solving to reduce stressors, is regarded as one of the more effective methods of dealing with emotions. For example, if a teenager is stressed out about writing an important exam, setting up a study plan to make sure they are prepared for the exam can be an effective way to manage exam stress. Other forms of coping, such as avoidance, tend to be less effective, and can often increase negative emotions such as stress. When the stressor is not a problem that can be solved (e.g., I’m afraid of the dentist but I need to get a filling), acceptance-based coping (e.g., “I’m afraid but I know I can handle it”), or strategies such as distraction (e.g., listening to music or talking to a friend) are often effective. So although teens are experiencing intense emotions, they can manage them if they practice using these skills.

What can parents do to help their teen with emotion regulation?

When children are young, parents act as their external regulators and act to calm and soothe their babies and toddlers. As children age, these skills should become internalized and children should be able to self-soothe and regulate emotions more independently. As children enter adolescence this independence becomes even more important because developing autonomy is an essential part of adolescence. Research suggests that parents who are overly controlling can threaten their teenager’s sense of freedom making them more prone to engage in “forbidden” behaviour. Thus, parents find themselves in a balancing act between guiding and supporting their teens while also allowing them freedom. Self-determination, a central philosophy at Foothills Academy, suggests that psychological adjustment develops when youth experience autonomy, relatedness, and competence. When these needs are frustrated, individuals display maladjustment and psychopathology. In supporting your teenager in the development of emotion regulation, an autonomy-support approach to parenting is considered to be ideal. This means supporting freedom and volition and using strategies that promote youths’ competence while also establishing parental structure.

Emotion regulation also develops through an interplay between a child’s environment (i.e., family) and their internal neurological and psychological characteristics. Parents influence their children’s skills in managing emotions by modeling appropriate emotion management strategies, creating the emotional climate of the home (i.e., high or low conflict), and coaching their children to use effective strategies. For example, all parents argue, but it can be important to model appropriate and healthy ways of managing these arguments. It’s also important to be aware that parenting exceptional kids can require exceptional parenting, which can at times be stressful. This makes your own self-care routine as a parent as important as it is to help your child with emotion-regulation. Other strategies for parents include:

  • Talking to your teen about effective ways of dealing with emotions (e.g., problem-solving, distraction, positive self-talk)
  • Balance their need for autonomy with their need for guidance and support – don’t try and regulate their emotions for them, but also provide them with help as needed
  • Support your teen in slowly developing coping strategies and practicing them
  • The feedback you give your children regarding emotional reactions can be important – praise positive coping strategies and cue negative ones
  • Regulate your own feelings! This will help model effective coping strategies to your teen
  • Don’t confuse intent with ability – sometimes kids are trying really hard and want to do the right thing, but are having a hard time doing it
  • Don’t cater to anxiety – it only fuels it!
  • Provide validation and empathy for strong emotions
  • Increase the emotional literacy of the family (i.e., the ability to recognize and name emotions in oneself and others)
  • Try and catch your child’s negative self-talk (and challenge it!)
  • Co-regulate your teen’s emotions by doing your best to stay calm when they are angry or when you are arguing

What can teenagers do?

As noted above, emotion regulation skills are important for teenagers to develop. Although support from parents is important, it’s also important that teenagers start to develop their own abilities to regulate. Parents can support this development by modelling good emotion regulation skills, be accepting of mistakes, and provide opportunities for them to practice emotion regulation. Strategies for teens include:

  • Problem solve when you can. Think about whether or not the problem/stressor is fixable. How might you fix it?
  • When problem- solving isn’t an option, do something to distract yourself. Watch a show on Netflix, go for a walk, text a friend.
  • Get help! Sometimes feelings can be overwhelming or hard to handle on your own. Reaching out to friends, family, school staff, or someone you trust can help when dealing with big emotions.
  • Generate positive and hopeful thoughts and if possible try and focus on the positive aspects of a stressful situation. For example, “I didn’t get the grade I wanted on this test but I know I did my best!”

What can teachers do to support effective emotion regulation?

  • Being able to recognize and label emotions is an important aspect of emotion regulation – teachers can incorporate emotional awareness into their curriculum to help students notice and recognize the different emotions they experience
  • Research has shown that incorporating mindfulness activities into the classroom helps support the emotional well-being of children and youth
  • Use the Zones of Regulation – it supports children in recognizing and labeling emotions and also facilitates their development and use of coping strategies

Important Take Aways!

The teenage brain is still developing! Teenagers are not going to be able to perfectly regulate their emotions. On top of that many of the emotions teenagers experience are intense and can change quickly. Supporting children in developing coping strategies is an important part of parenting, as is letting teenagers practice these skills with some degree of independence. Strategies such as problem-solving, accepting negative situations, and distraction are particularly effective for teens. It’s important for parents to try and regulate the emotional climate of the household the best you can. Parents should also remember that teens with neurodevelopmental disorders may find emotion regulation to be particularly challenging and may require an increased degree of support and patience on the part of parents. Because parents may be putting in extra effort, they too need routines that help them de-stress. You need to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you assist anyone else!

Additional Resources:

  • Smart but Scattered Teens by Richard Guare and Peg Dawson
  • Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain by Daniel J. Siegel, MD
  • Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence by Laurence Steinberg
  • The Grown-Up’s Guide to Teenage Humans: How to Decode Their Behavior, Develop Unshakable Trust, and Raise a Respectable Adult by Josh Shipp
  • 1-2-3 Magic Teen: Communicate, Connect, and Guide Your Teen to Adult by Thomas Phelan
  • Your Defiant Teen: 10 Steps to Resolve Conflict and Rebuild Your Relationship by Russell A. Barkley & Arthur L. Robin

Written by Danae Laut, MSc., Ph.D. Student/Doctoral Intern at Foothills Academy Society, December 2017