Can teenagers experiencing powerful emotions learn to manage those emotions? A University of Illinois study in this month's Child Development reports that teens can become quite insightful about their emotional patterns and they can learn to intervene in their emotional episodes so they unfold positively.
"There's a stereotype that teens don't manage their emotions, their emotions manage them," said Reed Larson, a professor of family ecology and the Pampered Chef Ltd. Endowed Chair in Family Resiliency at the U of I.
"But this study showed that, in an atmosphere of trust and support, teens can become adept at identifying their emotions, learn to recognize the tricks emotions play on people, and begin to understand not only how to control their emotions, but to use them in positive ways," he said.
The research examined 12 youth programs and found that the students participating in a high-school musical theater production showed particularly rich emotional growth.
Larson conducted open-ended interviews and observations to learn how this growth had taken place. Ten teens were interviewed every two weeks over a three-month period during rehearsals, two adults who led the production were interviewed biweekly, and researchers observed the rehearsals weekly.
"In many ways, this production anticipated an adult workplace. The teens had to work together to achieve a goal, and they gained experience with the emotional dynamics of a group setting," Larson said.
"There's nothing like learning how to manage your emotions in a situation in which there are a lot of intense emotions occurring," he added.
This particular theater program had a culture in which frequent emotions, such as exhilaration, disappointment, anger, and anxiety (think stage fright) were talked about, and there was wisdom and knowledge about how to deal with those emotions, as well as lots of support, he said.
"Frank talk about emotions doesn't happen in a lot of places. It occurs in some families a lot more than others, and it doesn't happen much in the classroom at all. Expressing emotions requires an atmosphere of trust," he noted.
While the teens in this supportive culture were learning lines and assembling props, they learned that some people use emotions to manipulate others, that emotions can be hard to read, and that emotions can play tricks on you and bias your thought processes--ideas many adults still struggle to understand.
One teen said, "One thing drama has taught me is that when you're tired, you're more emotional. If I've had a long day or the rehearsal's gone on a little too long, I'm more short-tempered, more emotional in every way than I'd ordinarily be."
Many reported that restraining their negative reactions to others was one of the most important lessons they learned from their theater experiences. "You can't always say the first thing that comes to your brain. You don't attack people. That never works," said another.
Taking note of other participants' emotional characteristics made the teens more aware of their own emotional patterns. And many teens learned how to use positive emotion to enhance their work. "If I've learned one scene, it's a big source of motivation, and I carry that over to the scenes I'm not so comfortable with," a participant said.
But they also learned to control positive and negative emotions to keep the production running smoothly. One teen said, "I'm always happy when I do well and I just want to express it, but that usually comes out as bragging, so I try not to do it much."
They also realized that their negative emotions could be contagious. One boy described an experience in which others' lack of preparation upset him. "I can see myself really complaining about it, but if you do, you're just going to bring the whole show down," he said.
How can parents promote the emotional growth of their teenagers? "That's harder," said Larson. "As a parent, you don't have all the information that's behind your teen's behaviors. In a theatre production, it's obvious if someone is flubbing their lines; you can often pinpoint what's upsetting them. But a moody teen can be influenced by all sorts of things--problems with a girlfriend, peer pressure about a party, or a bad test grade."
"Still, parents can work hard to establish that atmosphere of trust, and there are opportunities for parents to be sensitive," he said.
Larson believes the lessons these teens learned will serve them well in later life. "In any adult work setting, people are dealing with feelings about success or failure, coping with jealousy, and navigating all the complexities of interpersonal relationships. Unfortunately, many adults express their emotions in destructive ways," he said.
"If you've learned to manage your emotions as a teenager, you're way ahead of the game," Larson said.
The study was co-authored by Jane R. Brown and was funded by the William T. Grant Foundation.