The Ability to Control Emotions
Here’s a quiz: What’s the difference between self-control and self-regulation? The distinction is not often discussed on parenting blogs but recognizing the difference is essential for the long-term wellbeing of tweens and teens.
Self-Control vs Self-Regulation
An easy way to think about how self-control and self-regulation differ is to imagine the following scenes:
A friend asks your daughter to join her for a treat at a bakery in town. Your daughter really wants to spend time with her friend, but she’s been trying to eat more healthfully and worries about all the temptations she’ll face – muffins, cookies, and crumbly slices of apple pie. She decides to go but promises herself she won’t have any sweets. Instead, she’ll just have a drink and enjoy spending time with her friend. Sitting across from her friend (who happens to be chowing down on a donut) and having a great time, she wants a bite but doesn’t ask for one. She’s exercising strong self-control.
Now, imagine this scenario:
The same friend asks your daughter to go to the same bakery. Your daughter agrees. This time, she can’t stop thinking about the donuts that this bakery is known for. She becomes distracted and her friend gets upset with her for not paying attention to their conversation. When your daughter comes home, she checks her phone nearly every minute to see if her friend replied to an apology text she’d sent. She can’t focus on helping make dinner or her homework. She takes her worries and frustrations out on you, raising her voice when you ask her an unrelated question. Your daughter is unsuccessful at handling her emotions or her reactions to them. Your daughter could use help learning to better self-regulate her feelings and responses.
Why Self-Regulation is So Important
The ability of teens to regulate and control emotions is linked to how well they’re able to manage stress. Teens who successfully deal with stress are better positioned to handle life’s challenges. This is because when adolescents are unable to manage stress they have greater difficulty solving problems.
The connection between stress and the ability to cope is vitally important.
Dr. Stuart Shanker, founder, and chief executive officer of The MEHRIT Centre, a leading institution devoted to teaching self-regulation skills and tools, says learning to positively cope with stress is “the foundation of healthy relationships, learning, and mental health.”
The good news is that parents are uniquely positioned to help teens learn effective coping strategies.
5 Opportunities for Parents to Help
Families play a significant role in helping teens develop skills to effectively manage stress. Below are strategies for assisting your adolescent in developing his or her self-regulation muscles:
- Be a Role Model. Parents never stop being role models for their children, even as they become teenagers and young adults, and even when it comes to learning self-regulation skills. They pick up what they need to know by watching us. How do you respond to problems – by thinking issues through one step at a time or do you tend to get overwhelmed and act impulsively? Is it more likely your friends would consider you quick to anger or calm and reflective? Our actions (whether we like it or not) show tweens and teens how to behave and process setbacks.
- Secure Your Home. No, we’re not talking about buying an alarm system for your house or apartment. What we’re referring to here is the need to make sure the overall environment in your home is free of too much negative emotion and behavior. This means everything from how family members talk with each other, the kind of hand gestures that are used, the types of facial expressions that are made, and working to control emotions if they are boiling over. Negative emotions can be contagious and can infect adolescents.
- Watch Your Reaction. This is different than being a role model. How do you respond to your teen’s outbursts or constant worrying? Can you remain calm, modeling that calm is possible? Are you understanding or do you hand out punishments without talking problems through? Parents who react in harsh and negative ways tend to heighten their adolescent’s inappropriate response to stress. These parents may also be unintentionally teaching teens to avoid talking about their emotions.
- Act Like a Coach. Imagine you’re a basketball coach. You see one of your players struggling. The athlete usually makes most free throws, but lately, nearly every shot has missed. As a coach, you have a decision to make: ignore the problem or help the player fix it. As parents, we face similar choices. Is it possible for you to see your teen’s struggles as an opportunity for teaching and establishing a closer bond? Is it a chance to empathize and validate their emotions?
- Learn the 5 R’s. Dr. Shanker has developed a group of strategies to help teach and support self-regulation. He refers to this method as the “5 R’s.” Here’s what it involves:
- Reframe: Encourage teens to consider their behavior from various angles. Are they engaged in genuine misbehavior or unfortunate behavior caused by stress? Teens have to understand the distinction for themselves and reframe their outlook accordingly.
- Recognize: There are five kinds of stress: physical, emotional, cognitive (stress over schoolwork), social (this is often made worse by social media), and pro-social (the stress individuals feel when they consider other people’s distress). It’s important to be sure teens can recognize these different types of stress and how each plays out.
- Reduce: Teens must learn effective strategies for managing stress. Being able to turn down their stress dial is essential. (Want to learn ways teens can reduce stress? Read Five Coping Skills Teens Need to Know and Teaching Teens to Relax to Manage Stress. CPTC offers an abundance of resources that will guide you to help your child better manage stress and we have an interactive tool that guides teenagers to develop their own stress management plan.)
- Reflect: It’s critical for adolescents to recognize and acknowledge their feelings. Many teens don’t know what it feels like to be truly calm or recognize when they are becoming over-stressed.
- Respond: Determine if your teenager engages in positive self-regulating behavior on a daily basis. If not, figure out opportunities for introducing activities that will restore their energy and increase their ability to manage stress.
A Note About Teens Who’ve Suffered Trauma
Self-regulation is likely more challenging for teens who’ve experienced trauma. This is because the parts of their brain that regulate emotions have to work overtime to process this trauma on top of the daily stresses everyone encounters.
Dr. Sandra Bloom, associate professor at Drexel University’s School of Public Health, studies these effects. “Once we have experienced a stimulus that evokes fear, we become ‘fear-conditioned,’ a state that is incredibly powerful and difficult for the logical centers of the brain to override,” she explains. “Because of the vast associational network of our brains, we can pair fear with virtually anything.”
If you believe your teen needs extra support because of one event or series of traumas, you may want to seek specialized care. Seeking out help is a sign of strength.