How To Help Your Teen Manage Overwhelming Emotions and Stress

You might not think so but a teen’s ability to manage stress is the same ability required to manage emotions. The two go hand in hand. In fact, this isn’t just true for teens, but for adults as well. This article will address ways to manage life when it becomes overwhelming, including learning how to cope with emotionally troubling and stressful moments.


Certainly, adolescent life can be challenging. And often it’s those emotions that can get teens into trouble. If they’re repressing them, it can lead to depression or addiction, and if they’re wildly expressing them, it can lead to acting impulsively and risky behavior. Plus, teens can act impulsively anyway. In fact, their growing brains are structured to do just that. The adolescent brain is undergoing incredible growth, including the logical part of their brain, which won’t fully develop until age 22. Meanwhile, their emotional and impulsive tendencies will drive their life.


Teens, and all young adults, need to learn how to manage stress and the inner experiences that arise as a reaction to life. In other words they need to learn how to cope with their emotions and inner life. To cope means the ability to deal effectively with something difficult. Developing emotional awareness is the key to coping.


Emotional awareness is the skill of knowing what you are feeling, why you’re feeling it, and what physical sensations you are having as a result. This is a skill that can be cultivated over time, which allows you to identify and express what you are feeling moment by moment. It’s is also the ability to understand the relationship between what you are feeling and how you choose to behave.


Emotional awareness involves the ability to:

  • Recognize your moment-to-moment emotional experience
  • Handle all of your emotions without becoming overwhelmed


Emotional awareness becomes important when a teen needs to make an important decision. For instance, instead of reaching for marijuana or a beer when feeling angry, teens might instead take a moment to recognize their anger and not let it get the best of them. In the same way, instead of jumping into a car with friends who have been drinking because of being disappointed by a boyfriend, they might stop for a moment and rethink they’re decision. In an extreme example, teens who are about to take their life due to feeling intense sadness or depression, might call for help instead.


As you can imagine, the inability to manage emotions can lead to dysfunctional coping mechanisms such as drug use, drinking, cutting, aggression, and other forms of risky behavior. It can be challenging to manage feelings when they seem frightening or overwhelming. They might be accompanied by fear, helplessness, and powerlessness. These emotions might also lead to shutting down. Therefore, having tools that allow teens to manage emotions and/or stress quickly can support their well-being.


The fastest way to move out of a stressful state is to become aware of one of your senses. In his wonderfully healing book, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World through Mindfulness, Jon Kabat Zinn details how returning attention to the senses can immediately shift your experience. By smelling a scent, touching an object, or experiencing a bodily sensation, you remind yourself of the moment you are in versus an imaginary moment that is likely the source of uncomfortable and challenging emotions. The reliving of trauma and its associated feelings is one of the main symptoms of PTSD. Shifting your experience to the present moment through the use of your senses can be an incredibly healing practice.


Of course, remembering to make this shift in attention is the challenge, particularly right in the middle of feeling heavy emotions. For this reason, making this sort of shift must become a practice, one that you are able to do more and more quickly when stressful feelings arise. In order to help teens with making a shift of attention to their senses, you can encourage them to slow down, practice yoga or meditation, listen to soft music from time to time, or take a break from technology. Having these slow, soft moments can facilitate the shift of attention to their senses, especially in those moments of stress.