Emotion Regulation and Youth Development Factors

Emotion Regulation and Youth Development Factors

Aspects of Adolescent Emotional Development and Regulation

Youth’s emotions become more complex as development accelerates in adolescence and early adulthood.24 Consequently, youth must learn new skills and strategies to regulate new emotional experiences or emotional experiences that are occurring in new environments. There are several commonly cited factors29 youth program staff and managers should consider that impact youth’s development and regulation of emotions. Understanding these factors and the age when they may be more prominent can help youth program staff understand how youth relate in many situations. However, as helpful as this understanding can be, emotional development like other development (i.e., physical, social, cognitive, etc.) rarely follows a straight trajectory; youth may be physically one age while emotionally another.


Select each developmental level to learn more.

This age group focuses on comparisons and may find comparisons with the success of others difficult and detrimental to self-confidence. Youth in this age and stage judge ideas in absolutes (right or wrong) and do not tolerate much middle ground. Relational aggression or trying to hurt someone by damaging their social status or relationships (think rumor spreading) and emotional bullying are more common among girls in this age group. Access to electronics increases opportunities for bullying at this age and developmental level.102

With a wide range of sexual maturity and growth patterns between and within gender groups, physical differences can be the focus for this age group. This is when youth begin to grow into their adult bodies and when the ears, nose, hands, and feet may be larger or disproportionate to the rest of the body. During this age and stage, youth begin to look more to peers than to parents for recognition, acceptance, and trust. Youth may act a certain way to get a laugh or attention from their peers in this age group.102

As youth grow and mature, the range of physical size and maturity shrinks. At this age and stage, physical growth is tapering. However, emotionally, intellectually, and socially, this age group is continuing to develop. Youth 15 to 18 years old begin to test sexual attractiveness as well as accepting and enjoying their own uniqueness. Youth still seek status and approval from peer groups and look for confidence of others in their decisions.102

Contributing Factors

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Emotional development in adolescence is unique due to rapid changes to electrical and chemical activities taking place in the brain and central nervous system. As children enter adolescence, they experience neurological and biological changes that improve their abilities to regulate their own emotions. During adolescence, for example, the basal ganglia undergoes maturation that impacts habit formation and reward-related behavior,30 maturation of the pre-frontal cortex leads to improved executive functioning,31 and higher gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels, a chemical in human brains, promotes calmness and leads to increased ability to inhibit actions32. Furthermore, youth experience changes in neural activity in the brain, such as dopamine, glutamate, and GABA signaling,33 with prefrontal activity becoming more focal.34 The maturation of brain processes means youth must adapt quickly to their own increased surges of emotions and complicated affective responses.

In adolescence, youth begin to develop meta-cognitive abilities: they are able to think about what they are thinking and feeling. For example, youth can recognize they are angry and choose to remove themselves from the anger-inducing situation rather than remain and continue to become more upset. Meta-cognitive abilities lead to skills that youth can use to effectively manage their emotions, which occurs through observation of others, coaching from trusted adults, and repeated experiences of similar situations and emotional consequences.35 Another example is executive functioning, which is the effortful control of thoughts, behaviors, and emotions and can be an important indicator of emotion regulation abilities. Development of executive functioning abilities that can be applied to highly emotional decisions means that youth will undergo a significant shift in their emotion regulation capabilities,31 which can have impacts on other aspects of their lives (e.g., academic functioning, social development, etc.).

In addition to factors largely out of their control (i.e., neurological and cognitive development), as youth mature their emotion regulation and expression are impacted by increasingly complex social development that is unique to adolescence. Specifically, compared to early and middle childhood, youth have to manage more complex emotional states (e.g., romantic feelings) while simultaneously experiencing an expanding social network, increased need for autonomy, and changes in their relationships with their parents. Although there have been mixed findings regarding the relationship between age and emotion regulation,37 emotion regulation capabilities tend to increase from early to middle childhood,38 middle childhood to adolescence,39 and young adulthood to middle age.40

Gender differences in emotion expression emerge throughout development. With very few gender differences being expressed in infancy and steadily increasing through adolescence.41 Since there is a relationship between gender and biological processes related to different sexes (e.g., hormones), experiences and expression of emotions are also associated with biological processes that relate to sex and gender differences;42 however, changes in gender identity that occur during adolescence may also influence how youth’s emotions are regulated.

In studies of emotion expression and regulation, girls have been found to express more internalizing (e.g., sadness) emotions while boys have been found to express more externalizing (e.g., anger) emotions.41 Consequently, girls may need more support in regulating internalizing emotions while boys may need more support regulating externalizing emotions. Also, girls have been found to use emotion and cognitive processing words when describing personal experiences more than boys, a strategy that has been linked to better emotion regulation. Boys appear to have better emotional well-being when they use strategies to help them process their thoughts and feelings as a way to regulate their emotions than boys who do not use processing strategies.44 In addition, gender differences have been found regarding which emotion regulation difficulties account for anxiety symptoms; anxiety in girls was associated with difficulties with emotion regulation strategies whereas anxiety in boys was related to difficulty accepting one’s own emotions.45 These findings are notable since increased use of emotion and cognitive processing words when describing emotional events is associated with greater well-being.46

How gender differences in emotion expression and regulation manifest among gender and sexual minority youth (e.g., gay, bisexual, transgender, or non-binary) is unclear,43 and more research is needed on emotion regulation and gender with sexual minority youth to better understand how their experiences of emotion expression and regulation might vary from the research described above.

Similar to gender, personality affects individuals’ emotion regulation based on a combination of internal traits47 and environmental influences48 that interact to impact youth’s outcomes.49 Emotion regulation in early childhood predicts similar regulation skills in early adolescence, suggesting personality qualities may play a role in how individuals manage their emotions over time.50 Youth with assertive, confident, and creative personality traits used cognitive reappraisal (a type of emotion regulation strategy) more than youth who did not endorse those traits51 while youth who exhibited the personality trait of adaptability (e.g., to novel situations) endorsed healthier emotion regulation strategies than youth who did not exhibit adaptability.52

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Development of Executive Functioning
This workshop includes practice for discussing and understanding the development of executive control or functioning (i.e., the ability to carry out goal-directed behavior using skills such as impulse control, memory, attention, etc.) in youth. Successful implementation of this workshop will ultimately help staff to better support youth in their development of executive control while leading them to understand the importance of this development both for youth and the success of the program.