How to Respond to Teens’ ‘Emotional Eruptions’

Adolescents’ newly complex feelings are something they often struggle to make sense of.

Thomas Damgaard Sabo, Damgaard Photography / Getty

A toddler falls. She lands on her knee and inspects it. And then—this is the crucial step—she looks to her parent. “Whatever’s going on with your face dictates what happens next,” says Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist and author. If the parent’s look indicates all is well, all will usually be well. But if the parent looks frightened, tears often ensue.

When children are in moments of exasperation and pain later in life, as teens, parents may forget this dynamic. But teens can use this sort of reassurance too, “so that when they’re having a big powerful experience, we, at least with our faces … transmit confidence that it’s probably okay, without dismissing” the problem, Damour says.

Speaking on a panel Monday evening with Damour at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, the Harvard brain-development expert Leah Somerville provided some additional context about the landscape of teens’ emotions. In addition to experiencing “higher highs [and] lower lows,” Somerville said, teens are also adjusting to the novelty of having more complex, sometimes mixed, emotions. “This is also something that adults experience, but the complexity that’s new to adolescents is something that they sometimes struggle to make sense of,” Somerville explained. “This can create confusion or a lack of full understanding or insight into what one is actually feeling.”

This is quite a departure from childhood. “Part of what we’re dealing with clinically are bright young teenagers who remember when they didn’t feel this disregulated,” Damour said. “It didn’t used to be that they would be in a puddle on the kitchen floor over not finding the jeans they were looking for.” Confusingly for them, she noted, they often feel “completely swamped by these emotions,” and at the same time have enough self-awareness to wonder, “What the hell is going on here?” A response from a parent indicating that this is normal—that everything is okay—can make a difference, just as it would to a toddler with a soon-to-be-bruised knee.

Sometimes, of course, everything is not okay. Rates of teenage anxiety and suicidal thoughts and actions have reached alarming levels in recent years. Still, Damour said, “I worry a little bit about how frightened we all feel.” Teens might say something like “I don’t want to be here anymore,” but Damour said that “sometimes that’s just a kid who felt really crummy that day and said it and has no suicidal ideation and intent.” If that kid’s parents send him to the hospital anyway, he might internalize the idea that “maybe I really am broken.”

Damour suggests that if a child says something that indicates they might be at risk of harming themselves, the parent can ask, “Do you really think about hurting yourself?”—because oftentimes, the response is something like, “No, no, I’m just really upset.” “That doesn’t mean you’ve cleared them of all suicide risk for the rest of time, but it is a way to engage it, [and] not make them sorry that they said something,” Damour said.

Gender can also play a role in how parents respond to their children’s emotions. “We project onto our children what we think their sex means from the moment we know that we’re going to give birth,” said Michael Reichert, who is the author of How to Raise a Boy and was also on the panel. “And for boys, what that means is we communicate in all kinds of ways that we’re uncomfortable if they show fear or shame or sadness.” This can leave boys ill-equipped to be emotionally expressive.

Meanwhile, girls, as Damour notes, are generally socialized to talk about how they feel, so they get more practice doing so. (Though the downside is that it’s possible some girls learn to dwell too much on negative emotions, whereas boys might learn to let the feeling subside.) Reichert said that the goal is to “recognize how we’re carrying in our heart, consciously or unconsciously, ideas about how our sons should be.” Which of course applies to daughters too.