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Managing Teen Emotions

August 2007 Research from the University of Illinois published recently in Child Development has found that teenagers can learn to manage powerful emotions and gain insight into the processes involved.

Reed Larson, professor of family ecology said:

"There's a stereotype that teens don't manage their emotions, their emotions manage them. But this study showed that, in an atmosphere of trust and support, teens can become adept at identifying their emotions, learn to recognize the tricks emotions play on people, and begin to understand not only how to control their emotions, but to use them in positive ways."

Co-authored by Jane R. Brown and funded by the William T. Grant Foundation, the study examined 12 youth programs and found that students taking part in a high-school musical theater production showed "particularly rich emotional growth". Ten teens were interviewed every two weeks over a three-month period during rehearsals which were also observed weekly. Two adult production leaders were interviewed biweekly.

Reed Larson commented:

"In many ways, this production anticipated an adult workplace. The teens had to work together to achieve a goal, and they gained experience with the emotional dynamics of a group setting. There's nothing like learning how to manage your emotions in a situation in which there are a lot of intense emotions occurring."

The program was found to have a culture in which a range of emotions such as exhilaration, disappointment, anger, and anxiety were discussed in a supportive atmosphere, sharing wisdom and knowledge about how to deal with these feelings.

Reed Larson continued:

"Frank talk about emotions doesn't happen in a lot of places. It occurs in some families a lot more than others, and it doesn't happen much in the classroom at all. Expressing emotions requires an atmosphere of trust."

Researchers found that at the same time as undertaking the various practical elements of the program, participants learned that emotions can be used to manipulate, hard to interpret, deceptive and bias responses in ways that confuse adults as much as teens.

One participant commented:

"One thing drama has taught me is that when you're tired, you're more emotional. If I've had a long day or the rehearsal's gone on a little too long, I'm more short-tempered, more emotional in every way than I'd ordinarily be."

Many reported that one of the most important skills learned from the program was how to restrain negative reactions. Another participant said:

"You can't always say the first thing that comes to your brain. You don't attack people. That never works."

Researchers found participants became more aware of their own emotional patterns by observing the responses of others. Many learned how to use positive emotion; one observed:

"If I've learned one scene, it's a big source of motivation, and I carry that over to the scenes I'm not so comfortable with."

The study found that participants learned the benefits of controlling positive and negative emotions. One said:

"I'm always happy when I do well and I just want to express it, but that usually comes out as bragging, so I try not to do it much."

Participants also realized that their negative emotions could be transmitted to others; one described an experience in which other peoples' lack of preparation upset him:

"I can see myself really complaining about it, but if you do, you're just going to bring the whole show down."

Reed Larson said it was more difficult for parents to promote the emotional growth of their teenagers:

"As a parent, you don't have all the information that's behind your teen's behaviors. In a theatre production, it's obvious if someone is flubbing their lines; you can often pinpoint what's upsetting them. But a moody teen can be influenced by all sorts of things - problems with a girlfriend, peer pressure about a party, or a bad test grade. Still, parents can work hard to establish that atmosphere of trust, and there are opportunities for parents to be sensitive."

Reed Larson concluded:

"In any adult work setting, people are dealing with feelings about success or failure, coping with jealousy, and navigating all the complexities of interpersonal relationships. Unfortunately, many adults express their emotions in destructive ways. If you've learned to manage your emotions as a teenager, you're way ahead of the game."

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