Navigating the ups and downs of the teenage years has never been easy, as young adults manage a lot of changes that are hormonal, physical, social and emotional. Teens could use help during this period; according to a recent study, the prevalence of depression in adolescents has increased in the last decade. One way teens can manage these experiences, according to psychologist Susan David, is by equipping teens with the emotional skills to “help them develop the flexibility and resilience they need to flourish, even during hard times.”
“Emotions are absolutely fundamental to our long-term success – our grit, our ability to self-regulate, to negotiate conflict and to solve problems. They influence our relationships and our ability to be effective in our jobs,” said David, author of the book “Emotional Agility” and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. “Children who grow up into adults who are not able to navigate emotions effectively will be at a major disadvantage.”
In her book, David defines emotional agility as “being aware and accepting of all your emotions, even learning from the most difficult ones,” and being able to “live in the moment with a clear reading of present circumstances, respond appropriately, and then act in alignment with your deepest values.” She says emotions are data, not directions. Understanding that distinction can equip teenagers to make healthy decisions that are in alignment with their values.
David said that she would explain the concept to a teenager this way: “Emotional agility is the ability to not be scared of emotions, but rather to be able to learn from them and use emotions for all the things you want to do and be in the world.” In order to respond with agility to challenging or novel situations, teenagers need to strengthen their emotional literacy. David recommends helping them understand these key concepts about emotions.
Emotions are not good or bad — they just are.
Everyone experiences difficult emotions — including sadness, anger and frustration. Teens need to know that “there is nothing wrong with you when you feel sad or angry inside,” said David. “Teens so often live in a world in which what peers are doing becomes the litmus of what is normal.” They engage in social comparison, often via social media platforms. “If your friends seem to be happy all the time, that can be very isolating for a teen.” When adults reassure teens that all emotions are normal and healthy, it can help ease their minds when they have a strong emotional response.
“No emotion is here to stay,” said David. “You may feel really sad or really angry — but emotions are transient. Emotions pass.” This understanding can help teens keep their emotional fluctuations in perspective. This doesn’t mean you should bury emotions or pretend they don’t affect you, said David. Instead, acknowledge them. Notice how you are feeling and create a “nonjudgmental space” between the emotion and how you choose to respond to it. David advocates viewing your emotional responses with compassion and curiosity, gently asking, “Why am I feeling this way?”
Emotions are teachers.
People can learn from difficult emotions. In fact, David notes, emotions can give you tremendous data about what is important to you, what you care about, who you can trust and how you want to live your life. “No one is happy all the time,” said David, “so when you feel those difficult emotions, ask yourself: What is this emotion telling me? How can I use this information to be stronger, better and more connected with the world?”
Courage is “fear walking.”
“We are surrounded by people telling us to conquer our fears,” said David, “but fear is normal.” The trick is not letting fear stop you from doing important work. “We cannot do away with fear, but we can choose to notice it with compassion and still move toward what is of value to us.” When you have the internal thought, “I want to do this but I’m scared,” take one small step that moves you toward your goal. “Courage is not the absence of fear,” said David. “Courage is fear walking.“
How Values Affirmation Strengthens Emotional Agility
David points to two additional strategies that parents and teachers can draw on to help teens become emotionally agile: values affirmation and autonomy.
“We are all susceptible to social contagion,” said David, “and we end up being influenced by our peers to do things that aren’t right for us. Core values are the compass that keep us moving in the right direction.” David said that giving teens opportunities to affirm and articulate their values is protective in the face of inevitable challenges. For example, adults can invite teens to talk about why school is important to them, who they want to be, what they care about, what they want to accomplish and what difference they want to make in the world.
Research out of Stanford University found that asking middle school students to reflect and write about the things that truly mattered to them during stressful points in the school year resulted in significant academic gains, particularly for at-risk students. A similar writing exercise with first-generation college students — where they were asked to write about the three values that were most important to them — also resulted in academic gains.
A strong internal compass can help teens develop true autonomy — which should not be confused with independence, said David. For example, when a teenager breaks curfew to stay out with friends, they may feel independent, but their behavior is not autonomous if it is driven by “peer pressure or chaotic emotions.”
Parents and teachers can support teens by providing them with scaffolded autonomy, giving them opportunities to try (and fail) to solve problems, talking through their choices and potential outcomes, offering them authentic choices and resisting the impulse to rush in to save the day.
David said we need to teach teens how to think, not what to think, as they work through emotionally charged situations. That way, when they face a difficult decision, they can act in a way that is congruent with their internal compass. “Ask them, ‘What are some strategies that might help you? You are struggling with something that feels big and difficult — so how do we break this down? What’s one step you can take? Support them as they look for solutions that are meaningful to them.” David encapsulates the essence of this support in three words: “I see you” — your emotions, your ideas, your strengths, your struggles, and your dreams.
“Every single one of us wants to be seen. For me, ‘I see you’ means creating a space in your heart and in your home or classroom where [a child] is seen. When children and adolescents are very upset, literally just the presence of a loving person helps to de-escalate and creates the space where calm is invited in.”