”Nervited”. An emotion you probably don´t recognize, but a word we refer to quite often in my family. It is a word my daughter came up with a couple of years ago on her first day of school after a long holiday. She used it to describe a combination of nervousness and excitement. She was feeling the pleasant emotions of starting something new but at the same time, she was also feeling the unpleasant emotions of uncertainty. It was a moment of pride and happiness for me, when I heard her make up a word to describe her feelings. Why? you might ask. Most parents are proud of their children when they achieve some kind of academic or sport achievement. I was proud, because I knew she was on the right track towards a happy and resilient life.
You see, I had read the research, which shows how the ability to label and differentiate emotions is important for our mental health and well-being. The ability to be able to accurately label distinct emotions in yourself is called emotion differentiation and people with high emotion differentiation tend to have healthier coping strategies for dealing with difficult situations and emotions. Put more simply; if you know how and what you’re feeling, you are better equipped to know how to cope with the emotions.
In an interesting study from Harvard University and the University of Washington researchers investigated the development of emotion differentiation and found it to be nonlinear; both adults and children had higher emotion differentiation than teens! Go figure? The study, however, also found that the lower emotion differentiation for teenagers, is not necessarily because their emotional awareness decreases; It is because they experience many emotions simultaneously. Whereas the younger children in the study tended to only experience one emotion at a time, both adults and adolescents experienced many emotions simultaneously. The teens, it seems, were still in the process of learning how to differentiate between them. This might explain why being a teenager can feel like being on an emotional roller-coaster; so many emotions coming and going at the same time, without having fully developed the skills to cope with them.
So, can teens speed up the learning curve and become better at accurately labelling their emotions even when they are occurring simultaneously? There is still more research needed in this area, but based on my experience teaching mindfulness to both teens and adults, I have no doubt, they can. If anything, teenagers are actually better at learning this skill than adults, as they don´t have to first un-learn all the less-healthy habitual coping mechanisms and interpretations of the world most of us adults live by. The teenage brain is very flexible (or plastic as they call it in neuroscience) and being able to differentiate emotions and respond to them in healthy ways is a skill; a skill that can be hardwired in the brain and skill that can be learned just like any other skill through acquiring knowledge and practice.
How to help your teenager?
So how do you help your teenager (and yourself) improve his or her emotion differentiation – the foundation of emotional intelligence? Here are a few tips that will get you a long way:
- Talk about emotions. Don´t stop at “how are you feeling” but go deeper. For instance, you could ask what else are you feeling, is it pleasant, unpleasant, neutral? This will develop your teen´s ability to put labels on their emotions and make them aware that emotions are often very complicated and cannot be described by just one word. Often, when we feel pleasure, there is also an element of unpleasant feelings and thoughts (for instance, the thought “this will not last”). And the other way around: If we feel sadness, there is often something nice in there too. For example, we might feel sad because we have lost somebody who was really important to us and who still gives us pleasant memories and feelings.
- Explore emotions with your body: Ask your teen about where and how he/she feels the emotion in the body. This will help them recognize and distinguish certain emotions from each other. Also, by going from the thinking head into the physical sensations in the body, they will experience that a lot of the unpleasant feelings are actually created by an active mind coming up with a lot of scenarios that will probably never come true. Finally, it will also make them realize that emotions change constantly – they come and go and are never the same. We are not in control of these emotions, but we can learn to respond to them in healthy ways.
- Allow the emotions to be present: Most of us adults have not been taught to accept emotions and most of us cope with unpleasant feelings by running away from them. So, if we fell over on our bike as a kid, our mother´s might have said something like “don´t cry – come have some cake!!”, or “big boys don´t cry”. Try another approach; Instead, when your teen is feeling sad, sit down with him or her and say something like “Oh that must really hurt, tell me about the feelings you are experiencing” – or simply “This really sucks right now”… then hug her/him and allow the feelings to be there to be explored. Even the emotions that we socially tend to not accept; anger for instance. So how does anger feel like…usually, when you explore anger, it acts as a kind of armor for some other deeper feelings of sadness, loneliness, regret etc. But it is a very valid feeling that we all have from time to time and it can have good motivating powers to change things for the better. Teaching your teen to explore these emotions will allow him or her to see emotions as important messengers and to cope with them in a positive way, even the unpleasant ones.
- Teach self-kindness; When you are exploring emotions, encourage them to develop an inner kind voice that is accepting of the situation (“shit happens”, “it is a part of life to feel like this from time to time”), but not judging and blaming themselves for whatever is going on. So, for instance encourage them to ask themselves “so, because life sucks right now, what can I do to be kind to myself – maybe it would help to go for a walk, call a friend, say some comforting phrases to myself.”
- Practice mindfulness: being a mindfulness teacher, of course I have to add that point. But seriously, mindfulness is really about acknowledging and coping with difficult thoughts and emotions and it gives you a lot of knowledge and good healthy mental habits, if you to take time out and explore the emotions that you are feeling in any particular moment.
As a final note, if you find this all too touchy–feely, let me tell you, by training your teen´s emotional intelligence, you are not only improving his or her ability to live a happy life, but you are also making him or her a successful leader of the future. As leadership pioneer Peter Drucker said; “You cannot manage other people unless you manage yourself first”. And Janice Marturano, founder of Mindful Leadership, adds: “We need to place as much value on our capacity to understand our emotions as we do on our capacity to educate our discursive, cognitive mind. Relying solely on our thought and experience is simply not enough in today´s world” (Marturano; Finding the Space to lead).
Now, do you see why I was a proud mother to hear my daughter say the made-up word nervited?