Teens can learn to manage their emotions

July 26, 2007

Can teenagers experiencing powerful emotions learn to manage those emotions? A University of Illinois study in this month's Child Development reports that teens can become quite insightful about their emotional patterns and they can learn to intervene in their emotional episodes so they unfold positively.

"There's a stereotype that teens don't manage their emotions, their emotions manage them," said Reed Larson, a professor of family ecology and the Pampered Chef Ltd. Endowed Chair in Family Resiliency at the U of I.

"But this study showed that, in an atmosphere of trust and support, teens can become adept at identifying their emotions, learn to recognize the tricks emotions play on people, and begin to understand not only how to control their emotions, but to use them in positive ways," he said.

The research examined 12 youth programs and found that the students participating in a high-school musical theater production showed particularly rich emotional growth.

Larson conducted open-ended interviews and observations to learn how this growth had taken place. Ten teens were interviewed every two weeks over a three-month period during rehearsals, two adults who led the production were interviewed biweekly, and researchers observed the rehearsals weekly.

"In many ways, this production anticipated an adult workplace. The teens had to work together to achieve a goal, and they gained experience with the emotional dynamics of a group setting," Larson said.

"There's nothing like learning how to manage your emotions in a situation in which there are a lot of intense emotions occurring," he added.

This particular theater program had a culture in which frequent emotions, such as exhilaration, disappointment, anger, and anxiety (think stage fright) were talked about, and there was wisdom and knowledge about how to deal with those emotions, as well as lots of support, he said.

"Frank talk about emotions doesn't happen in a lot of places. It occurs in some families a lot more than others, and it doesn't happen much in the classroom at all. Expressing emotions requires an atmosphere of trust," he noted.

While the teens in this supportive culture were learning lines and assembling props, they learned that some people use emotions to manipulate others, that emotions can be hard to read, and that emotions can play tricks on you and bias your thought processes--ideas many adults still struggle to understand.

One teen said, "One thing drama has taught me is that when you're tired, you're more emotional. If I've had a long day or the rehearsal's gone on a little too long, I'm more short-tempered, more emotional in every way than I'd ordinarily be."

Many reported that restraining their negative reactions to others was one of the most important lessons they learned from their theater experiences. "You can't always say the first thing that comes to your brain. You don't attack people. That never works," said another.

Taking note of other participants' emotional characteristics made the teens more aware of their own emotional patterns. And many teens learned how to use positive emotion to enhance their work. "If I've learned one scene, it's a big source of motivation, and I carry that over to the scenes I'm not so comfortable with," a participant said.

But they also learned to control positive and negative emotions to keep the production running smoothly. One teen said, "I'm always happy when I do well and I just want to express it, but that usually comes out as bragging, so I try not to do it much."

They also realized that their negative emotions could be contagious. One boy described an experience in which others' lack of preparation upset him. "I can see myself really complaining about it, but if you do, you're just going to bring the whole show down," he said.

How can parents promote the emotional growth of their teenagers? "That's harder," said Larson. "As a parent, you don't have all the information that's behind your teen's behaviors. In a theatre production, it's obvious if someone is flubbing their lines; you can often pinpoint what's upsetting them. But a moody teen can be influenced by all sorts of things--problems with a girlfriend, peer pressure about a party, or a bad test grade."

"Still, parents can work hard to establish that atmosphere of trust, and there are opportunities for parents to be sensitive," he said.

Larson believes the lessons these teens learned will serve them well in later life. "In any adult work setting, people are dealing with feelings about success or failure, coping with jealousy, and navigating all the complexities of interpersonal relationships. Unfortunately, many adults express their emotions in destructive ways," he said.

"If you've learned to manage your emotions as a teenager, you're way ahead of the game," Larson said.
The study was co-authored by Jane R. Brown and was funded by the William T. Grant Foundation.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Related Emotions Articles from Brightsurf:

Why are memories attached to emotions so strong?
Multiple neurons in the brain must fire in synchrony to create persistent memories tied to intense emotions, new research from Columbia neuroscientists has found.

The relationship between looking/listening and human emotions
Toyohashi University of Technology has indicated that the relationship between attentional states in response to pictures and sounds and the emotions elicited by them may be different in visual perception and auditory perception.

Multitasking in the workplace can lead to negative emotions
From writing papers to answering emails, it's common for office workers to juggle multiple tasks at once.

Do ER caregivers' on-the-job emotions affect patient care?
Doctors and nurses in emergency departments at four academic centers and four community hospitals in the Northeast reported a wide range of emotions triggered by patients, hospital resources and societal factors, according to a qualitative study led by a University of Massachusetts Amherst social psychologist.

The 'place' of emotions
The entire set of our emotions is mapped in a small region of the brain, a 3 centimeters area of the cortex, according to a study conducted at the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca, Italy.

Faking emotions at work does more harm than good
Faking your emotions at work to appear more positive likely does more harm than good, according to a University of Arizona researcher.

Students do better in school when they can understand, manage emotions
Students who are better able to understand and manage their emotions effectively, a skill known as emotional intelligence, do better at school than their less skilled peers, as measured by grades and standardized test scores, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

How people want to feel determines whether others can influence their emotions
New Stanford research on emotions shows that people's motivations are a driving factor behind how much they allow others to influence their feelings, such as anger.

Moral emotions, a diagnotic tool for frontotemporal dementia?
A study conducted by Marc Teichmann and Carole Azuar at the Brain and Spine Institute in Paris (France) and at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital shows a particularly marked impairment of moral emotions in patients with frontotemporal dementia (FTD).

Emotions from touch
Touching different types of surfaces may incur certain emotions. This was the conclusion made by the psychologists from the Higher School of Economics in a recent empirical study.

Read More: Emotions News and Emotions Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.