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by Angela Geiser
Few who have lived with them would deny it: teenagers are emotional.
In trying to help, parents may chide their teens for being temperamental and teach them to suppress their feelings. But Marin County psychologist and author Mary Lamia says doing so is a big mistake.
Emotions provide a wealth of information and motivation for teens that can help them attain success and well-being, she says. Lamia’s newly published book, Emotions! A Guide to Making Sense of Your Feelings, teaches teens how to get the most of this tremendous tool.
Lamia – in addition to being a psychologist and a professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley – is an expert on teenage emotion. She has worked with teens in her private practice since 1978 and advised dozens of teens who called to speak to her on her long-running Radio Disney show, “KidTalk with Dr. Mary.”
Her own two sons are now grown – one is an anesthesiologist, the other a professor – but at one time her house teemed with teens, Lamia told us in a recent interview. The boys’ friends often visited, and the family hosted weekly Friday dinners for as many as 20 kids at a time.
Her own mother died of cancer as she was entering adolescence, so Lamia knows how important it is to have a caring adult who can help teens “understand what they feel and help them make sense of the complexity of emotions.” In writing Emotions!, she set out to do just that. And although she wrote it for teens, the book can also teach parents ways to support their kids and manage their own emotions.
Until recently, emotions got a bad rap, even from the mental health establishment.
“Up until 20 years ago, there was very little focus or research on emotions,” Lamia said. “Emotions were regarded as something that interfered with one’s thinking.”
But recent groundbreaking studies show that emotions give key data that help with decision-making. When something makes us sad or angry or envious, etc., our emotional response offers an instant appraisal of the circumstance and gives us a push to improve the situation. In fact, recent research indicates that focusing on feelings instead of details in making complex decisions often leads to a more successful outcome, Lamia says in her book.
Lamia devotes a chapter to each of 15 emotions, from pleasant feelings like happiness to those we normally perceive as negative, such as anxiety. Citing many studies and sharing anecdotes that teens can relate to, she makes the case that most emotions, even those that seem negative, have evolved over time because they can benefit us.
Here are some of the ways that emotions can help teens, and all of us, attain academic, social and psychological success.
1. Many emotions elicit a physical response that can motivate us to improve the situation – if we direct our actions appropriately.
Lamia’s book explains that the emotion of anxiety, for example, often causes sweating, a racing heart and a heightened sense of alertness. It makes us aware that something could go wrong – for example, we could fail a test – and inspires us to act, in this case by studying.
“Anxiety can sharpen your focus, help you think on your feet and energize you,” Lamia says in Emotions!
However, many people misdirect their energy when they feel anxious. They focus on the physical discomfort or something unrelated and relatively minor, such as their appearance. Lamia urges teens to identify the real source of their anxiety. By taking deep breaths and being as prepared as possible in an unsettling situation, they can take on the challenge step by step.
2. Anger can inspire a person to right a perceived wrong, but venting anger doesn’t help.
Anger, like anxiety, triggers a physical reaction. Our muscles tense and we feel hot. This often causes us to react aggressively, which may have been useful when we were cavemen.
But since nowadays it’s unlikely that we are in any mortal danger, it makes sense to evaluate before reacting. We should pinpoint the cause of our anger and not retaliate against someone or something that doesn’t deserve it, Lamia writes. Once we know why we’re mad, we should think about whether retaliating will improve the situation. A mellower reaction is usually more effective, so Lamia suggests we calm down first by going for a walk or run, taking a warm shower or distracting ourselves with music or entertainment. Venting may feel good at first, but recent studies show that it actually augments our anger.
3. Guilt helps people maintain their relationships.
Many of us consider guilt a negative emotion because it feels unpleasant. However, it has a good side – it causes us to repair a relationship or fix a mistake we’ve made.
As always, it’s important to evaluate your feelings, Lamia writes. When you experience excessive guilt or feel guilty when you aren’t to blame, you’re hurting yourself and not helping anyone else.
4. Being proud of one’s accomplishments, (as opposed to being egotistically proud), feels good and can inspire teens to excel further.
“Pride can be like a healthy craving,” Lamia writes. “If you want an antidote to shame or embarrassment…activate the emotion of pride.”
Studies show that across cultures, the non-verbal expression of pride, (standing tall, tilting the head back and smiling subtly), transmits a message of high status to others. By discreetly showing pride, teens gain status and acceptance among their peers.
5. Sadness due to a disappointment or loss prevents teens from going into denial and brings about eventual acceptance.
Sadness causes teens to reflect and mull the impact of their loss and eventually revise their objectives and identity. Pain forces them to deal with the issue when they might prefer to deny that it occurred.
Sharing their sadness with people they trust can help teens get through it. Connecting with others “can relieve your sense of loss,” Lamia explains.
It is also important to differentiate between helpful emotions like sadness and similar, but more dangerous and debilitating ones, such as depression.
6. Embarrassment can alert teens that they’ve committed a faux pas.
When we show embarrassment, we let others know that we regret our behavior and will try to do better, studies show. People tend to react warmly toward those who show appropriate embarrassment.
Embarrassment differs from the more extreme emotion of shame. People who are ashamed aren’t just unhappy about one transgression; they dislike themselves as a whole. Sometimes they bully others or try to push their shame on them. Lamia says that teens who feel ashamed can recover by continuously focusing on their good qualities.
Sometimes, teens feel overly embarrassed or embarrassed for something they have no control over. They need to know that they’re experiencing the “spotlight effect,” in which they are overestimating how much others notice them.
No matter what they’re feeling, Lamia says young people should ask themselves: Is the emotion letting me know something I’d rather ignore? Am I reacting more to a past experience than to the present? Is my response correct for the situation or exaggerated?
When teens can evaluate their emotions in that way, they will have learned how to make the best of “a powerful and extraordinary part of being human.”
Angela Geiser is editor of Teen Focus.
Emotions! A Guide to Making Sense of Your Feelings (American Psychological Association’s Magination Press, 2012)
Understanding Myself: A Kid’s Guide to Intense Emotions and Strong Feelings (Magination Press, 2010).
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