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Emotion Focused Therapy with Teens

We all know that the average teenager is very emotional, due to the hormonal changes that take place during adolescence and the fact that the part of the brain that allows rational thought and impulse control is still developing. Many of the teens I meet with have difficulty managing their emotions. They may have trouble recognizing them, or feel confused, guilty, or overwhelmed by them. Since they don’t know what to do with their emotions and see them as a distraction from learning and socializing, they often ignore them as they go about their day.

Unfortunately, emotions don’t disappear when we ignore them. If we try to stuff them down, they just pop back up again later on, often with more force or unpredictable results. Imagine holding a beach ball underwater- as long as we are paying close attention, we can keep it there- but as soon as we’re distracted, it will pop up out of the water and hit us or someone else in the face. Getting “hit in the face” is often the reason teens come to see me- they’ve realized that their emotions are getting the better of them and are looking for some help.

Problems that can arise due to a lack of skill in emotional identification, expression and management include: anxiety or panic attacks; depression; irritability; headaches, stomach aches and sleep problems; feeling “out of it”, spacey or shut down; feeling overwhelmed or out of control; confusion about identity; difficulty bonding with others; difficulty making decisions; abuse of drugs and alcohol; self-harm; aggression toward others; and suicidal thoughts. I’ll explain how all of these problems are connected by discussing the role that emotions are biologically designed to play in our lives.

Emotion is our response to interacting with the world around us. Some emotions are almost universal- for example, imagine winning a large amount of money. I’m willing to bet that you are feeling excited. Then, some emotion is not universal, but specific to an individual. For example, imagine that you and I are friends planning to spend the day together. How would you feel if I proposed going on a hike? How about going dancing? How about watching an old Hollywood film? The answer to those questions, whether you feel excitement, dread, disinterest, or whatever else, tells you something about what kind of person you are.

Emotions allow us to know ourselves, and knowing ourselves allows us to make decisions that satisfy our needs and values. When we do what’s right for us, we feel happy, content, and interested in life. When we are going down the wrong path for us we feel anxious, sad, and dread waking up in the morning. In a relationship that’s good for us, we feel safe and appreciated, whereas those that aren’t good for us make us feel angry, fearful or badly about ourselves. When we treat others poorly we feel guilt and shame about our actions, which nudges us to change our behavior. In this way, positive emotions act as encouragement to keep doing what we’re doing, and negative emotions are warning signs that something isn’t right. When we are not in touch with our emotions it is harder to decide what to do next; not to mention, we lose out on many opportunities for joy and connection.

So I hope it’s becoming clear why it’s so important to be in touch with our emotional selves. Now I want to talk about what to do when we realize we’re not.

The first step I take when beginning emotion focused therapy with an adolescent is to help increase their awareness of different emotions and how they feel in their body. The basic emotions that are experienced across human cultures are happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust. Almost everyone is familiar with these words, but sometimes it is difficult to apply them to our own direct experience. For example, we are not born knowing what it means to have a knot in our stomach, or to feel our cheeks flush. We learn when others notice these things are happening and label them with an emotion word. Learning the names of emotions allows us to communicate our emotional state to others and to better understand it for ourselves.

Once emotions are identified, we can discover what they are trying to tell us. For instance, if I notice that I am feeling irritated with a friend, one possible interpretation is that they are not being a good friend to me. It could also mean that I didn’t get enough sleep the night before, or drank too much coffee or not enough water, because emotions are experienced in the body and can be generated both by physical and mental experiences. I could also be irritated because of something else that happened that day, that I haven’t yet acknowledged or dealt with.

It can take time to find the source of difficult emotions, but if we determine what is bothering us we can often do something about it; then we feel better. If we regularly ignore our emotions we lose the opportunity to address our needs, and can go down a path that leads away from our ultimate happiness and purpose. For instance, if I assume I’m irritated because of something my friend did, when I really just needed to eat lunch, I might pull back from the relationship unnecessarily. Conversely, if I assume my irritation is not related to my friend, but they consistently do things that hurt me, I will stay in a relationship that is not good for either of us.

But what if we absorb the message that certain emotions, or strong emotions, are wrong? That’s a step further than a simple disconnection from our emotional selves; that is a taboo against getting back in touch with that emotional self. If we try to listen seriously to how we are feeling, a voice in our head that therapists call the “inner critic” might say something harsh like- “stop overreacting; you’re being a crybaby; there’s no good reason to feel this way” etc. Then our natural response is to go back to ignoring our emotions, because we feel badly about ourselves for having an emotional experience at all.

The good news is that once we are aware of our inner critic, we can start to question its hold over us. The opposite of self-criticism is self-compassion. We know what it means to be compassionate to a friend- we listen to what is bothering them, tell them we have their back, and try to make them feel better. If they did something wrong, we gently help them learn from their mistakes and make amends, then put it behind them.

We can apply this same process to ourselves when we find ourselves feeling critical about our own difficult emotions. Rather than immediately judging what we feel as bad or good, right or wrong, we can allow ourselves to simply feel however we do.

The next time you find yourself speaking to yourself harshly, try this. Imagine your critic as something small, silly, or non-threatening. I imagine a chipmunk, sitting in a tree, cheeks stuffed with acorns and squeaking at me furiously from above. It’s easier to doubt the authority of a chipmunk. Then imagine an entity who is kind, wise, and who you trust. This could be the universe, God, a family member, really anybody. I sometimes do this with Beyonce because she has a really soothing voice and I feel like she’s got a lot figured out. I would imagine a little thought bubble with Beyonce’s face in it, and her telling me things like, “I’m sorry you’re feeling sad right now; you’ll get through it” or “It was unfair that they treated you that way- of course you’re angry”. It can feel kind of silly, but personally I’d rather feel silly than terrible about myself.

Self-compassion is a practice, which means that if you only do this exercise once it probably won’t do much in the long term, but if you continue doing it regularly over weeks and months you might notice it becomes second-nature. Along the way your critical voice will become quieter and easier to ignore, more like a whisper than a yell. And once that voice is not getting in the way, you can notice what it is you’re actually feeling, and what that feeling is trying to tell you, and you can use that information to make your own life and the lives of those around you better. That is what I do with adolescents in my therapy practice, and that is something you can do on your own as well.

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