Helping Teens Develop Emotional Agility

At some point during your child’s middle school years, you reach a tremendous milestone: You become the parents of a teenager.

It’s a watershed moment that sometimes earns you sympathy and advice from other parents who have “been-there-done-that” – and comments such as “Hang on tight! You are in for a wild ride!” It’s no secret that teenagers deal with complex emotions relating to their social, academic, and personal life. They are figuring out who they are, and that’s no small task.

In her book Emotional Agility Dr. Susan David, a Harvard psychologist, writes about how we can develop an emotional literacy that will help us succeed at work and home. While much of the book is directed at adults, David also devotes a chapter to how parents can help children respond in a healthy way to the inevitable ups and downs of life.

Deborah Farmer Kris (who happens to be both a former TVS English teacher and my wife) recently interviewed Dr. David for NPR’s MindShift. It’s well worth your time to read her entire article, Emotional Agility as a Tool to Help Teens Manage Their Feelings.

In it, David defines emotional agility this way for the teenage audience: “Emotional agility is the ability to not be scared of emotions, but rather to be able to learn from them and use emotions for all the things you want to do and be in the world.”

The article addresses several “key concepts about emotions” that every teenager needs to know, including these three:

Emotions are not good or bad — they just are.

Everyone experiences difficult emotions — including sadness, anger and frustration.  Teens need to know that “there is nothing wrong with you when you feel sad or angry inside,” said David. “Teens so often live in a world in which what peers are doing becomes the litmus of what is normal.” They engage in social comparison, often via social media platforms. “If your friends seem to be happy all the time, that can be very isolating for a teen.” When adults reassure teens that all emotions are normal and healthy, it can help ease their minds when they have a strong emotional response.

Emotions pass. 

“No emotion is here to stay,” said David. “You may feel really sad or really angry — but emotions are transient. Emotions pass.” This understanding can help teens keep their emotional fluctuations in perspective. This doesn’t mean you should bury emotions or pretend they don’t affect you, said David. Instead, acknowledge them. Notice how you are feeling and create a “nonjudgmental space” between the emotion and how you choose to respond to it.  David advocates viewing your emotional responses with compassion and curiosity, gently asking, “Why am I feeling this way?”

Emotions are teachers.

People can learn from difficult emotions. In fact, David notes, emotions can give you tremendous data about what is important to you, what you care about, who you can trust and how you want to live your life.  “No one is happy all the time,” said David, “so when you feel those difficult emotions, ask yourself:  What is this emotion telling me? How can I use this information to be stronger, better and more connected with the world?”

Perhaps my favorite take-away from this article was this simple phrase: “Emotions are data, not directions.” Emotions provide us with important information, but we get to choose how we act in response to our feelings. And that knowledge empowers us to make good choices, even when we don’t particularly feel like it.  

photo credit: Alan O’Rourke happy_sad_face_smiley via photopin (license)


  • Dear Dr. Kris,

    Thank you for this timely post regarding teenage emotions. I have enjoyed reading every “Notes From the Middle” post since George began TVS, last year. I would like you to know that I will miss seeing these just as we will all miss seeing you next year. We wish you all the best in the future!

    Sincerely, Katie, Mark and George Kalpakis

    Sent from my iPad


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