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How to Help Teens Through Emotional Times

Let me begin this blog with a brash, even stark observation:

We live in a very emotional time period.

Not only are adults divided over our nation’s politics right now, expressing volatile emotions, but our kids are navigating extreme emotions at a high level. Students often find it difficult to negotiate the alarming amount of information streaming at them, to navigate the connections they’ve made on social media and the pressure they feel academically. Recently, I encountered these three scenarios in my travels:

  • Parents are witnessing kids emote over high stress from school.
  • Faculty on college campuses witness students unable to have civil discussion.
  • Employers witness young professionals ill-equipped and emotional at work.

Recently, I spoke to a therapist about this topic. We both agreed that our experience indicates people today have a more difficult time managing their emotions than in earlier decades. There may never have been a more important time for us to develop emotional intelligence than now.

Why Do Students Become Emotional?

Kids cry because they feel the innate need to express themselves. We all know that adolescents experience hormone change during puberty and their teen years. Kids, however, are prone to cry all through pre-adulthood. Obviously, emotions run higher in some students than others. Some cry naturally for reasons such as:

  1. Failure: They feel they’ve disappointed an adult.
  2. Opposition: They feel attacked by someone.
  3. Disappointment: They’ve been let down by someone.
  4.  Fear: They get scared or don’t feel safe.
  5.  Selfishness: They don’t get their way.
  6.  Inadequacy: They don’t feel their emotions have been acknowledged.

Part of growing up is learning to manage emotions. This means performing the balancing act of allowing for emotions (on the one hand), but ensuring they are the “servant” not the “master,” when in inappropriate contexts. I remember hearing “Big boys don’t cry” when I was growing up, and I learned to keep my guard up, especially around other boys. At the same time, I learned as an adult that strong men are able to express emotions in front of others, without communicating uncontrollable weakness. The key is emotional intelligence: the management of emotions.

Strategies for Parents and Teachers to Handle Tears in Children

Below are action steps we can use when helping young people handle emotions:

Tears in Childhood

  1. Model how to handle emotion for them. Adults lead well when they set an example for emotional intelligence within their family or school.
  1. Acknowledge their tears. Many children have been damaged by adults who unwittingly communicate: Big boys don’t cry or it’s never right to shed a tear.
  1. Help them stay in their window of tolerance. This is not always possible, but do all you can to keep them in contexts where they can handle their emotions.
  1. Give them boundaries and stick to them. Communicate up front what’s acceptable behavior, with or without emotions, and stay consistent.
  1. Offer them an appropriate place to express their emotions. If kids cry frequently, suggest a safe but secluded place where they can go and emote.
  1. Remind kids that emotions will pass. While it doesn’t solve the problem instantly, over time kids begin to realize that tears and crying come and go.

When tears are frequent, it can be a sign kids want attention—even subconsciously. Be sure to not merely respond to crying fits with rewards to keep them calm. This sends the message that all they need to do is cry or whine to get something they want. If it happens incessantly, see a doctor to ensure a proper diagnosis.

Tears in Adolescence

With teens and young adults, the steps above can be relevant, but I would add the following responses as well:

  1. Stay calm. When a teen is upset, it escalates when we meet emotion with emotion. Remain poised, let them collect themselves. It’s the best way to keep them engaged.
  1. Work to offer dignity not embarrassment. Always remember: avoid judging them for their reactions. Treat them with respect during a difficult interaction.
  1. Express empathy. I often try to say—“No worries. You wouldn’t believe what I’ve struggled with in this area. I can totally understand why you’d feel that way.”
  1. Listen actively. Frequently, teens simply need to feel they’ve been heard in times of emotion. Look for non-verbal cues and sub-text as they express themselves.
  1. Don’t try to soften the effect by using a cliché, such as: “Well, at least you’re not in a wheelchair” or “You’re lucky to still be around…” These feel like platitudes.
  1. Finally, try to recognize what the teen is angry about, disappointed by or afraid of before offering some action steps. Understanding paves the way to resolution.

Marjorie Holmes wrote, “Man is the only creature whose emotions are entangled with his memory.” Let’s do our best to direct those memories with our students and young adults.


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