The teenage years are incredibly formative. It’s a time when kids are experimenting, trying new things and learning who they are. It’s also a time when emotions are running high. As teenagers navigate adolescence, it can be difficult for them to open up and talk about their feelings. However, we know that kids often suffer when they keep their emotions bottled up. It’s up to parents to encourage their teenagers to express their emotions during a vulnerable time.
Research Shows Sharing Emotions Leads to Better Mental Health
For a variety of reasons, many teenagers are reluctant to share their emotions, especially negative ones. It’s the first time that many teens are trying to navigate their lives without oversight from their parents, and they want to deal with stressful situations on their own. When teens do open up about feeling down, it’s usually in non-descript ways, like simply saying “I feel bad.”
New research shows that teenagers who do share their emotions and talk about their feelings in a specific way are less likely to get depression. It’s based on a concept called negative emotion differentiation (NED), which is the ability to make detailed distinctions between negative emotions, and give those emotions labels.
The study, conducted by Emory University and the University of Rochester, examined 233 adolescents with an average age of 16. The researchers started by conducting diagnostic interviews to screen the participants for depression. Then, the teenagers reported their emotions four times per day for a seven day period. A year and a half after the study, researchers conducted follow up interviews to determine the longitudinal outcomes.
Researchers found that teens who are poor at differentiating their negative emotions are more likely to have depressive symptoms after stressful life events. On the other hand, teens who are good at distinguishing negative feelings are better at managing their emotions after dealing with stress, which lowers their chance of getting depression.
Based on the study’s findings, teens don’t need to have an entire conversation about their negative emotions in order to protect themselves from depression. The participants who simply described their negative emotions as, “I feel annoyed,” or “I feel frustrated” were linked with having a lower risk of depression. Being able to distinguish one bad feeling from another is enough to help teens manage their negative thoughts and feelings more productively.
How Parents Can Help Their Teens Open Up
Many teenagers struggle to willingly open up to their parents. Because of that, parents need to find ways to encourage their kids to share their feelings, especially when they aren’t feeling their best. Unfortunately, many kids avoid talking to their parents about their feelings until it’s too late. Having open conversations with your teen about their emotional state can make them less likely to develop a mental health disorder or have suicidal thoughts.
Teens can feel vulnerable when sharing their emotions, so creating a level of trust between the parent and the child is essential. To create that trust, parents should serve as a role model to their families by openly discussing their own feelings. Talking about the highs and lows of their day can show teens that there is no judgment in sharing feelings, especially negative ones.
Parents also shouldn’t try to guess why their teen is acting a certain way. Teens know when their parents are judging their feelings or behaviors, and that can easily lead to mistrust. If a teen seems distant, angry or sad, don’t assume it’s because of one reason or another. Avoid guessing what is causing their negative state, and instead, let them come to you about it.
Helping a teen feel comfortable opening up is important. However, it’s also important to help the teen find ways to release their emotions, especially if they aren’t keen on talking to their parents. Writing, singing, exercising, laughing, praying and dancing are all effective outlets for expressing emotions. When a teen learns to manage their own internal emotions, it can make them more likely to open up to others around them.
If a teen is uncomfortable talking to their parents, their school may have resources to help them. Most high schools have guidance counselors or mental health specialists who can meet with students to discuss their feelings and emotions. These counselors are trained to work with teenagers specifically and can find ways to help them manage their emotions more effectively.
When to Consider Therapy for Your Teen
In many cases, teens do want to open up about their feelings. It can be uncomfortable to live with bottled up emotions on a daily basis. But teens are very hesitant about who they share their feelings with.
There’s only so much that parents can do to help their teenagers open up when they’re feeling down. If at-home intervention isn’t working, consider sending your teen to therapy. Therapy gives teens a safe place to discuss their emotions with someone who doesn’t have any authority over them and doesn’t know them on a personal level. Teens may also feel like a therapist is less likely to judge them or pry them for information than their parents are.
If your teen is struggling with depression or other mental health issues, consider enrolling your child in Mission Harbor’s Adolescent Program. We offer one-on-one therapy, family therapy sessions as well as parent support groups to help kids and their parents find healthy ways to deal with emotions. The program is run by our clinical team, which has over 20 years of experience treating depression and anxiety in teens.
In addition to traditional clinical therapy, we also offer expressive arts, yoga, and psychodrama to help adolescents learn to open up about their feelings, share their life stories, and process interpersonal conflict. Our treatment program takes a comprehensive approach to mental health therapy, so your teen can learn to manage their emotions and live a healthier life.
If you’re in the Santa Barbara area, contact us at (805) 209-4433 to learn more about the Adolescent Program at Mission Harbor.