Anyone who has ever been an adolescent knows that time of life is full of emotional turmoil. Adolescence is often a time of intense fear and anxiety, loneliness, guilt, shame, exuberance, anger, infatuation and joy.
Adolescents are commonly understood to experience emotion more intensely than adults and to cycle more quickly through moods in their day-to-day lives. A study in Emotion investigates at what age emotions are most intense in adolescents, how rapidly they change and the influence of coping strategies on how teens respond to their emotions (Vol 12(6), Dec 2012).
The study aims to understand whether older teens, who tend to be less emotionally reactive than younger teens, simply experience less intense emotions than younger teens or whether they experience equally intense emotions but are better at managing them.
Separating out whether a teen is experiencing intense emotion, but coping with it or experiencing emotions that are less intense is a complicated process. In this study, teens were asked to respond to some emotional pictures naturally and others using a coping technique they’d been taught.
Intensity of Emotion Doesn’t Change, But Coping Skill Does
Hormonal changes, new experiences with independence and shifting social relationships combine to create an emotional storm for adolescents. And age, according to this study, doesn’t lessen the intensity of the emotions triggered by these forces.
However, as adolescents age, most develop mature skills that help them manage the fury of intense emotions. Older adolescents were better able to change how they think about emotional events and to distance themselves from overwhelming emotional situations.
When the researchers taught younger adolescents how to think differently about events to reduce intense emotion, they were able to do so, but not as well as older adolescents. This could be because older adolescents have had more experience coping with emotions or it could be a function of brain maturation. Younger adolescents have less developed prefrontal control regions of the brain. And it is these regions that are typically associated with healthy coping in adults.
Social Situations and Sensitivity Matter
Adolescents tend to be intensely interested in friendships and highly sensitive to social influence and peer rejection. Navigating changing and expanding friendships and evolving social cues and rules is complicated and emotionally fraught at this age.
And for some it’s more difficult than for others. Some adolescents tend to be more sensitive to rejection than others. These teens anxiously anticipate and perceive rejection. They are more vulnerable to feelings of rejection and ostracism.
For these more sensitive teens, it is more difficult to learn strategies to cope with painful emotional situations than it is for the average teen, which put them at risk for low self-esteem, relationship violence and trouble functioning with kids their age.
These sensitive teens did tend to make progress developing coping skills as they moved through the teen years and many did not develop social or emotional problems. Early positive social experiences or having different coping skills, such as an ability to delay gratification or exert self-control, may account for these differences.
Whether you’re parenting an adolescent, caring for an adolescent or simply are an adolescent it’s helpful to better understand what is happening, emotionally, during this tumultuous time.
The results from this study suggest that early adolescence is a critical time in the development of healthy coping skills and that these skills may be particularly important for teens sensitive to rejection.