Understanding teenagers’ emotions

Ms Tara McLachlan, School Psychologist


Adolescence can be a rollercoaster ride of intense feelings, emotional ups and downs, and unpredictability. It can also be an overwhelming and confusing time for parents, who wonder what happened to their pleasant and easy-going daughter. Healthy adolescent development can look quite irrational and erratic, and as Anna Freud wrote, ‘such fluctuations and extreme opposites would be deemed highly abnormal at any other time of life’ (Freud, 1958). The emotional rollercoaster of adolescence is a unique experience and not all girls will encounter significant emotional stresses. However, it is important to remember that our girls are expressing what they are genuinely experiencing and their feelings and emotional state need to be taken seriously and managed with care.

Part of our role as school psychologists at Girls Grammar is to help girls navigate their emotional world so they can gradually learn how to manage their own emotions and thrive. In order to achieve this, we assist the girls to recognise and regulate their emotions, to find helpful and healthy ways to tolerate their emotional changes, and to develop healthier relationships with those around them.

Research has demonstrated that girls prefer to manage painful feelings by discussing them with others, while boys tend to use distraction as a coping mechanism (Damour, 2016). This tendency to manage feelings by talking about them means that girls are more likely to become overly focused on their emotions, and initially harmless venting can lead to unhealthy rumination. Rumination makes it difficult for girls to find a way through their discomfort and can contribute to the development of depression and anxiety (Damour, 2016). If rumination occurs, it is best to advise girls to take action and work towards a solution if the problem can be resolved, or to take a break and find a helpful distraction or coping strategy.

During adolescence, girls tend to seek out their friends and share their emotions with one another. While friends do provide good social support to a girl in distress, sometimes they start to experience vicarious social stress and take on the friend’s emotions as their own (Damour, 2016). Vicarious social stress can cause a contagion effect within a circle of friends, whereby the other girls in the group develop similar symptoms. If a girl relies too heavily on her peers, they may start to back away in order to protect themselves emotionally. In this instance, it is best for girls to seek support from parents, the school, external support networks or other trusted adults.

Technology and social media have significantly impacted girls’ ability to recognise and regulate their emotions. Dr Lisa Damour, the Director of the Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls and author of Untangled, postulates that technology and social media has stunted emotional development in teenagers (Damour, 2016). By the time they commence secondary school, teenagers are regularly using technology and their devices become affect regulation tools. The over-reliance on technological devices has resulted in young people being unable to sit with uncomfortable feelings and lacking the skills to manage emotions effectively. Online interactions do not allow time to reflect on feelings or vent privately and silently before responding, so problems can intensify and adolescents may feel worse after discussing the problem on social media than before. It is recommended that parents hold off on allowing access to social media for as long as possible, and when access is granted, that appropriate boundaries are put in place to limit over-reliance. Furthermore, parents can encourage activities that involve face-to-face interaction and introduce ‘unplugged’ technology-free time.

So, what is the solution? How do we help our girls navigate their emotional world? We need to teach them how to ride the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence. This involves normalising the fact that ups and downs are part of life, particularly during this stage of their lives. Negative emotions are often perceived to be bad and unhelpful, and people go to great lengths to avoid experiencing discomfort. However, emotions can be reframed as part of an effective and highly developed system that provides necessary feedback to help girls reflect on the choices they are making, learn from their mistakes and modify their behaviour. For example, if a girl is feeling sad and upset in the company of her friends, perhaps it is time for her to move on and join another group. If she is feeling guilty for putting off her assignment, perhaps she needs to make a start. The experience of psychological discomfort can be helpful, so instead of wrapping adolescents in cotton wool and protecting them from experiencing adversity, perhaps we can teach them how to cope with challenging and uncomfortable experiences.

In the first instance, we can teach girls how to recognise and name their emotions using a strategy called ‘name it to tame it’, outlined in Dr Daniel Siegel’s book Brainstorm (Siegel, 2014). Dr Siegel proposes that naming a feeling and talking about it reduces the intensity of the feeling, because it allows you to either learn from it or choose to let it go. ‘Name it to tame it’ tends to have a calming effect, while statements that de-emphasise the experience like ‘You’ll be fine’ and ‘Don’t be silly’ tend to minimise feelings and escalate the problem. Mindfulness is another effective tool for managing emotions, because it involves paying close attention to the present moment, noticing feelings, and allowing them to come and go without reacting to them or controlling them.

Many girls manage their feelings by dumping uncomfortable ones on their parents, and parents serve an incredibly important role in helping to contain their daughter’s emotions. Parents are their daughter’s safe base, so it is normal and natural for teens to complain and vent to parents, and it actually serves a valuable purpose, because it allows girls to bring their best selves to school. Unloading negative feelings or experiences makes girls feel better about their day and helps them manage their feelings more effectively, as parents can help them work through the problem or reassure them that the best thing to do is nothing (Damour, 2016).

Friendships are extremely important during adolescence, and more often than not, girls provide good social support to one another (Brizendine, 2006). It is important that parents are mindful of this when their daughter is requesting to use her iPhone or spend time with friends on the weekend. Accessing peer social support is an effective, mature and adaptive coping mechanism and it should be encouraged and facilitated. Boundaries also play an important role in managing emotions and maintaining healthy relationships with others. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown proposes that boundaries are about making it clear to others what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in terms of how you want to be treated (Brown, 2010). The concept of boundaries is one that repeatedly emerges when working with teenage girls, firstly, because girls have a tendency to set aside their own needs and put others girls first, particularly when it comes to supporting a friend struggling with their emotions. We need to teach girls how to protect themselves emotionally by putting appropriate boundaries in place and helping their friend to access alternative supports. For example, if a girl is staying up late responding to text messages from a friend in distress, perhaps she needs to make it clear to her friend that she is unable to respond to messages after a certain time. Girls often need support and reassurance when setting boundaries with friends, because they worry they are doing the wrong thing and letting their friend down.

Finally, girls develop individual coping strategies for managing emotional changes. When feeling overwhelmed, girls tend to retreat to what is safe and familiar and often look to activities they enjoyed when they were younger (Damour, 2016). This may include watching childhood movies, reading favourite novels, cuddling a soft toy or cooking comfort foods. Some girls may feel better if they listen to music, exercise, write in a journal, make lists, reorganise their room or take a nap. It is important to recognise that a girl may be using these activities to cope with her feelings, even though it may seem like she is avoiding or wasting time. Regardless of how your daughter’s emotional journey unfolds, she will benefit from receiving validation, emotional containment and support. This involves acknowledging and accepting her emotions, and helping her to regulate them while she is still developing the skills and capacity to do this for herself.



Brizendine, L. (2006). The Female Brain. London: Transworld Publishers.

Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection. Minnesota: Hazelden Publishing.

Carr-Gregg, M. (2005). Surviving Adolescence. Melbourne: Penguin Books.

Damour, L. (2016). Untangled: Guiding teenage girls through the seven transitions into adulthood. New York: Ballantine Books.

Freud, A. (1958). Adolescence. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 13, 255-278, p. 269.

Siegel, D.J. (2014). Brainstorm: the power and purpose of the teenage brain. London: Scribe.