Do you remember arguing with friends during your teenage years? And taking out your frustrations on the nearest family member? Relationships and emotions are closely connected, especially during adolescence.
While relationships can sometimes trigger negative emotions, they can also help us feel optimistic and promote positive interactions. A surprise birthday party, for example, can be a joyful experience that creates positive memories with friends and strengthens peer relationships.
“Relationships and emotions are closely connected, especially during adolescence.”
Over time, the interactions between emotions and relationships can influence mental health in both positive and negative ways. Learning to process emotions and cultivate healthy relationships can keep teens from becoming trapped in negative cycles that can trigger or exacerbate mental health problems.
The good news is that there are evidence-based strategies that can help teenagers interrupt such negative cycles. My colleagues and I call these ‘Me Strategies’ and ‘We Strategies’.
Practicing ‘Me Strategies’ can help teens process their emotions and change how they feel about a situation. The following strategies are all linked with positive mental health outcomes:
- Looking for positive, rather than negative, emotions in other people’s facial expressions trains emotion perception. Teenagers who practice this approach learn to identify positive emotions in others and overcome a natural bias to perceive facial expressions as more negative than they actually are.
- Telling stories that allow us to distance ourselves from a situation, or help us to view it less negatively, trains emotion regulation. Self-talk like this can help teenagers to put a situation into perspective and modulate their emotions.
- Noticing changes in the body, such as an increased heart rate, helps teens to recognize emotions and trains interoceptive awareness – an understanding of the body’s signals.
Training these aspects of emotion processing can improve mental health outcomes. To my knowledge, no studies have focused specifically on encouraging young people to apply these skills in their everyday lives. Instead, researchers have sought to train these abilities in lab-based settings, without considering how the strategies might be applied in the real world.
The techniques that we call ‘We Strategies’ can help teens to resolve relational conflicts. Many of these strategies may sound familiar. They include putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes, cutting others some slack, and using ‘I statements’ to tell others how you’re feeling. But many of us forget these strategies in the middle of an argument, which is precisely when they might be particularly helpful!
Encouraging teenagers to think about how they might use these strategies in a dispute can enable them to avoid further conflict. Using ‘We Strategies’, they can consider reasons for an issue and constructive ways of approaching the other person to resolve it. For example, a young person might use ‘I statements’ to explain to a friend why they have recently felt ignored.
“Learning to process emotions and cultivate healthy relationships can keep teens from becoming trapped in negative cycles that can trigger or exacerbate mental health problems.”
In the past, researchers have tended to focus on improving either social skills or emotion processing abilities, but not both. Targeting those skills together may be the key to preventing mental health problems from developing or worsening in adolescence. Since people with mental health problems often report issues with both their emotions and their ability to relate to those around them, focusing exclusively on one area might mean losing sight of another reason why somebody may be at risk of poor mental health outcomes.
With this in mind, we are trialing a new school-based intervention to teach teenagers these ‘Me and We Strategies’ in group-based sessions. The ReSET project – building resilience through socio-emotional training – aims to reduce negative cycles, while teaching skills that encourage positive cycles as a way of preventing mental health problems from emerging or escalating.
Adolescence is a critical period of social and emotional development. Providing young people with the skills to process their emotions in a healthy way, and to communicate with those around them, can help prevent the onset and worsening of mental health problems. I hope our trial will help young people to navigate this often complicated stage in their lives.
We are currently recruiting parents and carers based in the UK to help us gain insight into ways to engage caregivers during our study, in the interest of maximising the benefits for the participating young people. If you are interested, please contact us at re[email protected]