Editor’s Note: Welcome to our CNN Wellness five-part series on adolescence – a tough time under any circumstances. As our children head back to school this fall, learn more about helping your tweens and teens understand their developing brains and feel their feelings.
Awkwardness and big feelings? You must be talking about middle school. And while many parents assume that middle school is a rite of passage that kids need to stoically tough out, the opposite could not be more true.
Your tweens and teens can navigate this developmental phase and come out stronger on the other side if they learn to tap into their feelings.
Teaching kids about feelings matters for pretty much everything on the long parenting runway, whether it’s diffusing toddler power struggles, cultivating empathy in young kids, helping adolescents learn emotional self-regulation, or navigating relationships going into adulthood.
I can tell you firsthand that suppressing feelings is not good. I grew up in an environment where drawing attention to yourself by showing emotions often lead to verbal or physical outbursts, so I trained myself to tamp down my feelings. Not learning how to express or manage my feelings eventually led to problems such as an eating disorder, becoming overly judgmental of other people and sometimes destroying relationships.
I have spent a lot of the past decade working on connecting to my emotions, complete with having a children’s 30-option “How Are You Feeling Today?” poster in my office that I use to identify my own feelings.
While the idea of dealing with feelings can seem scary and vulnerable, the tactics to help kids tap into them are quite simple. Here are five ways to teach tweens and teens about their feelings.
Don’t undermine your child’s feelings
Start by respecting kids’ feelings. Kids who feel respected and heard will learn to understand their feelings and those of others.
The next time your kid is in distress, don’t undermine their feelings with responses such as, “Don’t be so upset” or “You’re overreacting,” recommended Julie King, coauthor of “How to Talk When Kids Won’t Listen: Whining, Fighting, Meltdowns, Defiance, and Other Challenges of Childhood.”
King suggests affirming the feeling and what is happening in the moment with a response such as, “You sound really angry. That situation clearly upset you.”
A common trap for parents is fearing that naming negative emotions will intensify the emotions, but research shows the opposite. “Naming negative feelings in the strongest plossible language turns off the alarm bells in the amygdala that tell your brain to be scared or angry,” said Joanna Faber, King’s co-author of “How to Talk When Kids Won’t Listen.”
Learn the range of emotions, together
Encourage kids to label their feelings, which will better position them to work on problem solving. “You’re going to respond differently if you’re bored than if you’re tired or lonely,” shared Phyllis Fagell, a licensed clinical professional counselor and author of “Middle School Matters: The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond —and How Parents Can Help.”
Fagell also suggests that parents broaden their own feelings vocabulary — perhaps using a feelings wheel— to help their child label emotions. “A parent might say, ‘I can see from your expression that her comment isn’t sitting right with you. I’m wondering if you’re a little frustrated, or maybe angry. Does that sound right?’” suggested Fagell.
Tracking feelings, even just once a day, can help kids with this process. “Over time, they may notice patterns and more easily identify times or situations that cause big feelings,” said Janine Halloran, a licensed mental health counselor and author of “The Coping Skills for Kids Workbook.” Halloran suggests that kids use a mood tracking app, type notes in their phone using words or emojis, or create a feelings tracker in a bullet journal.
Model positive motives
Like many aspects of parenting, modeling behavior for kids is crucial. It’s important to encourage kids to assume the best-case scenario.
“Middle schoolers can have a hard time assuming positive intent, and it can help to encourage them to think more expansively about someone’s motives,” said Fagell. She encourages parents to model defaulting to the position that others wish them well, which will ultimately make it easier for kids to self-regulate emotions.
“You might say, ‘I left a message for Sandy, and she didn’t call me back. At first, I walked around wondering if maybe she was angry with me, but I decided to leave a second message, and it turned out she never received the first one.’”
Encourage kids to tap into invisible skills
Big feelings are undoubtedly going to arise as kids return to school; arm them with a tactic to help them cope quietly. “When kids feel overwhelmed at school, they usually want to use invisible skills so that no one knows they are using a coping skill,” shared Halloran.
She recommends breathing exercises such as inhaling for one count and exhaling for two counts or looking at a deep breathing gif on their phone, so it seems like they are just looking at their phone but are doing a deep breathing exercise.
In moments of stress Halloran also recommends that adolescents imagine their favorite place. “Figure out what that place is when they’re at home, talk about it, and encourage them to use their senses to imagine it. Then when they’re at school, if they’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed or need a break, they can imagine their favorite place and take a quick mini-vacation in their minds,” said Halloran.
To serve this goal, Halloran encourages kids to make a favorite place memory while on vacation. “When there’s a moment on vacation they’re enjoying, pay attention to all the details. Think about how it feels, smells, looks, what you hear and what you taste when you’re there. When you focus on those senses in the moment, it’s easier to conjure up that favorite place later.”
Encourage kindness and empathy
One of the best things parents can do is encourage kindness and empathy in tweens and teens. “When tweens embrace differences in others, and really appreciate that everyone has a unique and compelling backstory, they’re far more likely to accept their own quirks,” shared Fagell.
Fagell also notes that behaving kindly and empathically toward peers often kicks off a positive cycle, and that middle schoolers are especially tuned to reciprocating kindness.
“So much of self-regulation in the tween years comes down to the ability to sit with discomfort, to be able to manage less desirable emotions such as anger, insecurity and jealousy. And when they’re kind to others, they tend to be kinder to themselves as well, which makes them less likely to act impulsively and blow up their own reputation,” shared Fagell.
Feelings serve a purpose; we can’t ignore or muscle through them. Sometimes quiet is the answer. “We know from our own experience that when we are overwhelmed with emotion we can’t just snap out of it,” said King. Finding recovery time to sit with feelings then move through them is a powerful part of the journey.
Christine Koh is a former music and brain scientist turned author, podcaster, and creative director. You can find her work at christinekoh.com.