Teens Can Step Back to Regulate EmotionsOne method for regulating emotions that many people learn as they age is stepping back to evaluate stressful or emotional events. Research has shown this to be an effective strategy for adults to regulate their emotions, but what about teens? A new study from the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) and the University of Michigan finds that teens can regulate their emotions with the same distancing method that many adults use. The findings could lead to emotional regulation interventions for teens.

Researchers worked with 226 adolescents, aged 11 to 20, for the study. The researchers asked the participants to recall a recent, angering event, like a fight. Each participant reflected on an event, telling the researcher about his or her feelings, pin-pointing the source of their anger, and considering the overall experience. The researchers followed up with probing questions like, “When you saw the fight again in your imagination … how much did you feel like you were seeing it through your own eyes versus watching the fight happen from a distance?” This helped the researchers understand whether a participant was distancing herself from the experience.

The adolescents who took time to reflect upon events were less upset compared to the adolescents who dwelled upon events. The adolescents who separated, or distanced, themselves from past events were able to gain insight and new perspectives about their experiences.

Lead study author Rachel E. White, postdoctoral researcher at UPenn, explained that distancing oneself from an event is a good way to deal with emotional issues. “Mentally stepping back from the event didn’t mean the youth were avoiding their problems. In fact, they were dealing with them in a more adaptive way.”

Allowing oneself to pull back and observe feelings and experience helps people to move past difficult emotions. This is a simple intervention that could help young people better manage their emotions in adolescence and adulthood.

This research is published in the journal Child Development.

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