Emotion Regulation and Youth Program Staff

Emotion Regulation and Youth Program Staff

Adolescents face many changes through their normal growth and development, which may impact their ability to regulate their emotions. Research suggests that positive emotion regulation skills, such as cognitive appraisal and acceptance, help address mental or behavioral disorders. Negative emotion regulation skills, such as suppression and avoidance are linked to increased negative symptoms among youth.76, 75 Youth with better executive control tend to employ positive emotion regulation skills and decision-making, which are associated with low levels of negative behaviors,77 and positive emotion regulation is associated with academic competence among children78 and youth.79

Overall, these findings indicate that emotion regulation strategies can help to lessen negative outcomes and increase the likelihood of positive outcomes in youth. Youth program staff who work to deliver high-quality activities and programming should consider a range of emotion regulation strategies to use with youth to maximize positive outcomes.

There are numerous strategies youth employ to manage their emotions, which are linked to factors such as personality, family relationships, and social expectations. Emotion regulation strategies can be broken into two types: healthy/adaptive and unhealthy/maladaptive. Healthy strategies include strategies such as cognitive reappraisal, problem-solving, and acceptance. Unhealthy strategies include strategies such as avoidance, suppression, and rumination. The more frequently youth use healthy strategies and the less frequently they use unhealthy strategies, the more likely they are to have good mental health.75

Healthy or Adaptive Strategies

Healthy strategies require high-level executive functioning or the ability to manage yourself and your resources to achieve a goal—basically, self-control and regulation, or executive functioning skills that emerge during adolescence.75 Since healthy emotion regulation strategies increase the likelihood of positive outcomes,83 they are an important set of skills for youth to develop. Three common healthy emotion regulation strategies include acceptance, problem-solving, and cognitive reappraisal.

Select each healthy emotion regulation strategy to learn more.

Acceptance refers to allowing emotions to occur without trying to suppress or deny them.75 The idea of acceptance is common in therapeutic interventions such as mindfulness and acceptance and commitment therapy, which encourage a nonjudgmental awareness and acceptance of experiences as one way to lessen stress responses88. The acceptance strategy has been found to be positively related to healthy outcomes and negatively related to unhealthy outcomes.89 Youth program staff can reinforce acceptance of emotions by developing curricula that teach socially accepted emotional reactions to emotions (e.g., anger, sadness, happiness, etc.) and how to label and describe these emotions with words, art, dance, music, etc.

Problem-solving refers to the ability to generate new or alternative solutions to issues or situations that provoke a negative emotional response.75 Problem-solving encourages youth to modify their current circumstances by concentrating their efforts on solutions that redirect them from focusing on their emotions. Positive problem-solving skills have been associated with life satisfaction86 and fewer depressive and anxious symptoms.87 Youth program staff can facilitate problem-solving skills by developing activities that require youth to generate alternative ideas or solutions to dilemmas that arise within the youth program as well as everyday issues outside of the program.

Cognitive reappraisal refers to changing thoughts and beliefs about an object or situation that triggered a negative emotional response.84 This strategy requires individuals to give a different, often more positive, meaning to an object or situation in order to lessen their negative response. At high stress levels, individuals who engaged in cognitive reappraisals endorsed fewer depressive symptoms than those who did not.85 Youth program staff can help youth improve their cognitive reappraisal skills by providing youth with additional information or alternative explanations that can help youth ascribe different meanings to their interpretations. For example, teaching youth to give a different meaning to a fight between group participants can help them with perspective-taking and may mitigate strong emotional reactions.

Unhealthy or Maladaptive Strategies

Unhealthy strategies increase the likelihood of negative outcomes and tend to most often impact social interactions and relationships as well as internal symptoms.83 Three common unhealthy strategies used to regulate emotions include avoidance, suppression, and rumination.

Select each unhealthy or maladaptive strategy to learn more.

Avoidance describes ignoring feelings, stimuli, or situations that are believed to trigger unwanted emotions. Although avoidance tends to reduce negative emotions in the short-term (e.g., avoiding bullies at school so as not to experience fear), it can make long-term negative outcomes worse such as increased anxiety symptoms over time.75 Avoidance is often related to other unhealthy strategies. Youth program staff can help youth reduce their tendency to avoid negative emotions (e.g., sadness, anger, etc.) by openly discussing difficult emotions and possible ways to confront and resolve their emotions. In particular, youth program staff can make sure to address challenging topics that elicit complex emotional responses, such as discrimination, community violence, or bullying.

Supression refers to both stifling emotional expressions of felt emotions and subduing some or all emotional experiences.75 The use of suppression can have various goals although the objective is to reduce emotional experiences and expressions.91 To discourage suppression, youth program staff can provide youth with education on what suppression is and how to recognize when they are engaging in this strategy. Staff can model healthy ways to express emotions, and, equally as important, foster an environment where youth are able to express both positive and negative emotions.

Rumination is when individuals repetitively and often intensely focus on the emotional experience or reaction, with special attention to the causes and consequences of the emotions.95, 75 Rumination is associated with many negative outcomes among youth, such as depression,96 anxiety,97 and alcohol use.98 Youth program staff can help youth recognize when they are hyper-focused on an emotion (e.g., anger) or the events related to that emotion (e.g., a fight they had with a sibling) and teach strategies such as distraction and acceptance to help them regulate their emotions.


Emotion Coaching

Although youth tend to report experiencing more positive than negative emotions in youth programs,35, 99 it is essential that youth program staff have skills and training to help youth learn to manage negative emotions if they arise. Negative emotions may disrupt programming and activities, and youth’s feelings of safety could be compromised. To help youth learn and apply emotion regulation strategies, youth program staff will likely have to engage in emotion coaching. Emotion coaching is when adults provide support and guidance to youth to help them understand and manage emotions.61 Times when youth have negative emotions are opportunities for youth program staff to help youth learn and grow and should not be viewed as problematic.

Three approaches to emotion coaching have been identified in the literature: fostering acceptance by raising awareness and through reflection, problem-solving, and helping individuals to reinterpret the meaning of emotions (i.e., cognitive reappraisal).35 Active listening and inquiry-type question skills are the foundation to these approaches. Similar to coaches in other settings like sports, staff who coach youth in their emotion regulation must engage youth in identifying their own emotions and generate solutions as to how they can manage what they are feeling to achieve their goals within the youth program. Emotion coaching also involves encouraging youth to take “emotional risks” such as a task that elicits fear or anxiety to foster learning and growth.35 In addition, emotion coaching is also about being an example for youth. Youth program staff who demonstrate positive emotions in difficult or stressful situations are modeling healthy emotion regulation skills for youth to copy. Staff should engage in emotion coaching to help youth work through challenging emotional situations so that youth are less likely to quit the current activity, distance themselves from other group participants, or stop participating in the youth program altogether.

Download Workshops

Understanding Emotion Regulation – Youth Program Staff
This workshop includes practice for discussing and understanding emotion regulation with youth program staff. Successful implementation of this workshop will ultimately help staff to better understand their own emotion regulation strategies. In addition, staff will learn how to apply these strategies with youth through modeling.

Understanding and Practicing Active Listening
This workshop includes practice for understanding how to successfully engage in active listening techniques. Successful implementation of this workshop will help youth program staff to better hear and listen to youth and understand how they can support youth’s emotion regulation to strengthen the program overall.

Understanding and Practicing Inquiry
This workshop includes practice for understanding how to successfully engage in inquiry, or asking open-ended question techniques. Successful implementation of this workshop will help youth program staff ask questions to help youth think deeper about their own emotions.This workshop includes practice for discussing and understanding emotion regulation with youth program staff. Successful implementation of this workshop will ultimately help staff to better understand their own emotion regulation strategies. In addition, staff will learn how to apply these strategies with youth through modeling.