If you have any teenagers in your life, you’ve probably been witness to the emotional rollercoaster that is adolescence. You may have a hard time keeping up with all their ups and downs, with emotions shifting from extreme elation one minute to utter despair the next. But why is teen emotional life so rocky, and how is it different from our emotional experience at other ages?
In a recent study, researchers from Harvard and the University of Washington attempted to map the development of something called emotion differentiation, which is the ability to know and accurately label distinct emotions in yourself. This is a sign of good mental health, as those with high emotion differentiation tend to use effective coping strategies in difficult situations instead of turning to alternatives like alcohol or aggression.
The study asked participants ages 5 to 25 to look at a series of unpleasant images, such as a baby crying, and rate how much they felt five negative emotions: angry, disgusted, sad, scared, and upset. Their scores were analyzed to see how often they experienced a certain emotion independently from the other four emotions.
Ultimately, the researchers found that adolescents tended to experience many emotions simultaneously, but they differentiated them poorly. In other words, a teenager might consistently feel angry and sad together, indicating that it is difficult for them to distinguish between the two.
“It’s possible that increases in co-experienced emotions make it more difficult for teens to differentiate and regulate their emotions, potentially contributing to risk of mental illness,” explains lead author Erik Nook. Adolescence is “a period of more murkiness in what emotions one is feeling.”
I can relate as I think back to my first school dance, which was filled with excitement at the thought of scoring a dance with my crush and intense anxiety about having to show off my dance moves in front of all my friends. The result was an emotional melting pot that might help to explain why those dance moves turned out so awkward.
The researchers found that children had higher emotion differentiation than teens—but not necessarily because their emotional awareness was more evolved. Instead, they tended to only experience one emotion at a time. When my four-year-old is mad, he knows it and so does everyone else!
Adults, on the other hand, had higher emotion differentiation than adolescents—but not because they were only experiencing one emotion at a time. Adults also experienced many emotions simultaneously, but they seemed to have gotten better at distinguishing between them. So when my four-year-old gets mad and I start to feel both sad and frustrated, I can recognize that I feel sad because my son is upset but frustrated because I just want him to put his shoes on!
If the skill of differentiating emotions is so important, can teenagers get better at it, or do they just have to accept the old adage that “you’ll understand when you’re older”?
One strategy that has shown some promise in helping young people to manage their emotions is to directly teach self-regulation. As evidence continues to come out showing that self-control provides immense benefits, researchers have found that learning to manage distress and foster empathy can help adolescents to improve their self-regulation skills.
Another recent study, albeit conducted among adults, suggests that emotion differentiation can be enhanced through the practice of mindfulness. The process of bringing attention to one’s inner mental state without judgment seems to help people distinctly label emotions they are experiencing. These promising results indicate that practicing mindfulness might be an avenue worth pursuing for teenagers—or any of us who struggle with the rollercoaster of emotions.