Helping Teens Express Feelings

Teens who are skilled in managing emotions have insight into their own experience, feel understood by others, and are empowered to find their own solutions. On the other hand, teens lacking in these skills often have little self-awareness, feel alone and helpless, and have few coping resources.

Avoid Fixing. When children experience messy feelings, our natural response is often to try to make the pain go away as quickly as possible. We rush to downplay the experience (Its really not so bad.) or offer false reassurance (Everything will be okay.). Often we attempt the quick fix by offering solutions, or worse, taking on the problem as our own and solving it for them. These responses often make things worse. They give kids the mess age that they are overreacting, their experience is trivial, and they are incapable of solving their own problems.

Instead, the goal should be to validate a young persons experience by helping them to recognize, express, and cope with all of the feelings they experiences. A few simple strategies can help facilitate this process.

The first step is helping kids develop the skills to identify and express their feelings. Kids often lack the verbal skills to label what they are experiencing. Help them develop a rich vocabulary of feeling words to label the type and intensity of their feelings.

Modeling. Teens watch how you deal with your feelings and take their cues from you. Get into the habit of using I messages. When you do, you take ownership of your own feelings, explain yourself clearly, and keep the lines of communication open. Comments such as, Im feeling overwhelmed at work, or I get scared when you drive like that, are more helpful and productive than, My boss is a pain in the neck, or Youre being a jerk!

Use reflective listening skills. When talking with teens, listen closely for both the content (what is being said) and the feeling behind the content. Paraphrase what you hear back to check for accuracy. It sounds like youre frustrated because you didnt do as well on the test as you would have liked. Offer your observations tentatively to give her permission to correct you. Avoid the impulse to rush to solve the problem!! The most important part here is for her to feel heard. She will not be ready to talk about solutions until that happens.

Scaling Technique. When a child feels understood, hes more likely to feel safe exploring the issue further with you. Ask him to rate the level of his feelings on a 1-10 scale. Explain that these diffe rent intensities have different names, too. If hes mad and feeling 3, he may be annoyed. If he says 9 or 10, enraged might be a better word. Help him learn to match the right words with how hes feeling. Also help him look at whats underneath his feelings. Anger is often the emotion we see, but it is usually a secondary feeling for something else, such as embarrassment, fear, or frustration.

I Messages. Kids often act out when experiencing intense feelings because they dont have the skills or the vocabulary to express themselves orally. Teach her to say I feel overwhelmed by all the homework I have this week. or I feel angry about what happened yesterday.

Getting feelings out and feeling heard and understood takes time and practice, but the payoff is worth it. Conflicts are avoided, relationships are strengthened, and kids are empowered.

Check out Part 2 of this seri es: Helping Kids Develop Coping Skills. For more on talking to kids, see Communication Blockers and Communication Builders.

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