Often it’s emotions that get us into trouble. If we’re repressing them, they may lead to depression or addiction, and if we’re wildly expressing them, they may lead to acting impulsively and risky behavior.
And teens can certainly act impulsively. In fact, their growing brains are structured to do just that. The adolescent brain is undergoing incredible growth. Neurons are wiring and new connections are forming between the two hemispheres. This kind of growth is in an explosive time during adolescence. If the brain can continue to be plastic, that is, if new neural connections can continue to form and if old ones can be released, this is can support healthy brain function and mental health. These neural connections and adaptability are important in a teen’s learning, behavior, and mood regulation.
However, the part of the brain that controls impulsivity completes its growth between the ages of 23-26. The impulsivity of teenagers (and of some adults) is the function of the frontal lobe of the brain, which is the most evolved and distinctly human part of the brain. It’s lack of development might explain a teen’s tendency to make poor decisions. Teens tend to experiment with risky behavior, ride the wave of emotions and make rash decisions. Teens often don’t fully recognize the consequences of their choices.
However, the ability to acknowledge emotions provides teens with a great tool, a tool that they can take with them long into adulthood. For instance, developing the skill of emotional awareness can provide them with a sense of control. By developing a relationship with their emotions, that is, by becoming more aware of them, they can better understand what they’re feeling and how to respond to them.
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.
Instead of reaching for marijuana or a drink 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.
Emotional awareness is the skill of knowing what you are feeling, why you’re feeling it, and the physical sensations you are having as a result. This is a skill that can be cultivated over time, which allows a teen to identify and express what he or she is feeling moment by moment. It’s also the ability to understand the relationship between feelings and how they influence behavior.
Emotional awareness involves the ability to:
- Recognize your moment-to-moment emotional experience
- Handle all of your emotions without becoming overwhelmed
Cultivating emotional awareness can support the ability to respond versus react. In other words, becoming more aware of feelings can help put some distance between the stimulus and your response. Interestingly, emotional awareness has everything to do with anxiety and stress. It’s important to know that a teen won’t be able to manage emotions unless he or she knows how to manage stress. The two are inherently related. Because emotions are unpredictable, they can come on strongly at times and create a stressful experience. Learning how to manage emotions, similar to the ability to manage stress, depends first on a teen’s level of emotional awareness.
Whenever parents, teachers, and caregivers can teach their child about emotional awareness, they could in fact be saving a teen’s life.