A brief extract on a single idea




NO 1521

Emotions and adolescents

It is common for adolescents to struggle with their developing bodies, identities, and emotions (Patrick and Rich, 2004). The effect of poor emotional regulation of these adolescents presents with it a myriad of systemic stressors. Skilled professionals, however, can create interventions that can be used to help adolescents understand and effectively deal with the maze of emotions that accompanies adolescence. In some cases, youth simply lack either the awareness or language to articulate how they are feeling. It may be easier to default to a passive response such as "I'm fine" or an aggressive response like "I'm pissed" or "I'm angry" rather than a more assertive statement such as "When you call me names, I feel hurt and don't want to be around you."

When hostile emotions simmer among these youth, researchers have discovered a host of problematic behaviors inevitably follow. Some youth may direct their pent up emotional energy and disrupt classrooms or family life, disregard rules, and/or shirk responsibilities (Hoag and Burlingame, 1998). Cramerus (1990) suggests that adolescents coping with anger tend to put on a show of toughness, not caring about others' opinions, and dress and act in a "better than others" fashion. With this "show" that adolescents put on, they often see themselves as victims and distrust others. Professionals who can see their role with some of these adolescents as a "coach" may be better suited to intervene and provide understanding, language, and an outlet to dealing with many youth's troubles.

Specific emotions are more than just feelings or attitudes. They involve physical sensations and mental variations as well. Helping adolescents recognize the physical and mental experiences of emotions and what "sets them off" has been found to be useful in therapeutic settings (Feindler and Starr, 2003). There are more than two states to emotions. Anger, for example, is not black and white; one is not just angry or not angry. These physical and mental cues are helpful in identifying early warning signs of dangerous situations that may lie ahead.

When physical and mental cues have been identified, an adolescent can better understand what triggers the powerful physical and mental responses that accompany emotional responses. It can be beneficial for adolescents to have an opportunity to describe the sources of their emotional energy in a general context (Patrick and Rich, 2004). Feindler and Starr (2003) suggest, "Youth can benefit from gaining an internal sense of 'power' that comes from controlling one's own impulses and emotional responses" (p. 159). Identifying triggers and physical and mental cues can help adolescents understand the power and control they can have over themselves. When adolescents are able to identify what "pushes their buttons" they are more apt to be able to make better choices about how to regulate their emotions (McWhirter, 1999). Therefore, adolescents' awareness of emotionally challenging situations increases the likelihood that they will recognize these situations as problematic and make responsible choices and behave in a socially appropriate manner (Patrick and Rich, 2004).

Generally speaking, adolescents coping with anger often exhibit an aversion for taking responsibility for their actions. The blame for behavior often rests with peers or family members (Feindler and Starr, 2003; McWhirter, 1999). Understanding what responsibility is and demonstrating how adolescents can be responsible in their actions and communication are integral steps for  adolescents to develop their own emotional regulation techniques (Hoag and Burlingame, 1997).

Adolescents who demonstrate difficulty regulating their emotions must learn to negotiate with peers, teachers, community partners, and their own parents (Jennings, 2002). Anger management or social skills training courses are often used to assist in teaching emotional regulation and self-efficacy components (Hoag and Burlingame, 1997; McWhirter, 1999). However, work with adolescents does not need to be limited solely to therapy. Many adolescents could benefit from structured activities strategically placed in school or group therapy curricula. 


Rappleyea, D.L. and Munk, A.C. ( 2008). Altering the future: Solutions to problem saturated stories. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 17, 1. pp. 38-39.


Cramerus, M. (1990). Adolescent anger. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 54. pp. 512-523.

Feindler, E. and Starr, K. (2003). From steaming mad to staying cool: A constructive approach to anger control. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 12. pp. 158-160.

Hoag, M. J. and Burlingame, G. M. (1997). Evaluating the effectiveness of child and adolescent group treatment: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 26. pp. 234-236.

Jennings, D. (2002). Negotiation, problem-solving used at alternative school. Inside School Safety, 7, 6.

McWhirter, B. T. (1999). Effects of anger management and goal setting group interventions on state-trait anger and self-efficacy beliefs among high risk adolescents. Current Psychology, 18. pp. 223-238.

Patrick, J. and Rich, C. (2004). Anger management taught to adolescents with an experiential object relations approach. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 21. pp. 85-100.

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