A Different Way To Look At Emotions: Mental Health & Wellness For Tweens And Teens

Updated: Apr 12

It is interesting to watch elephants when they come across a pile of elephant bones. Scientists have discussed the behaviors seen and labeled the behaviors as grieving. Elephants are always moving in search of food and water as they need large amounts of food and water to keep their giant bodies nourished. They can travel seven up to 50 miles a day to meet those needs and must not waste time. They have a goal and must achieve it to survive. Despite that urgent need to meet those needs, as they trek across the grasslands, they stop when they encounter elephant bones.

Suddenly, their urgency shifts, and we see it in their body language. The whole herd stops and begins to use their trunks to touch the bones gently. They caress them, pick them up, feel them. They walk around the carcass, sometimes lifting one leg momentarily and placing it down. They often linger, pacing back and forth. The elephants focus on what is right in front of them and communicate subtly amongst themselves. The little ones watch the older elephants and sometimes might not know how to respond. They might watch and move around or imitate. The elephants attend purposefully. They process the scene through touch, sight, smell, and move their whole body, sometimes making low rumbles, sometimes reticent. They linger but eventually, they slowly walk away. They walk away because they have a long journey ahead of them. They must find water and food.

Encountering elephant bones is similar to when faced suddenly with difficult emotions. Day-to-day life situations and circumstances are unpredictable. It is unmistakable that the elephants' encounter with elephant remains evokes some sentiment. While we will never know what the elephants experience in their ritual, we can glean insight from their 'mourning' behavior.

Mental health and wellness emphasize the importance of emotional wellness. Being aware of emotions and understanding how they can impact decisions, behavior, and mental health is key to mastering them. Many tweens and teens struggle with emotions. Intense emotions will inevitably come up in life. Whether it's daily challenges or unexpected upheavals, feelings will emerge when least expected. All emotions serve a purpose; however, how we process them makes the difference between healthy versus unhealthy emotional expression. When emotions run rampant, we think, feel and behave poorly, reflecting our mental health and well-being.

What are emotions?

Emotions are the responses that we experience in the amygdala. The amygdala is located deep in your brain within the temporal lobe. The amygdala is responsible for processing emotional memory, secreting hormones, arousal/alertness, and experiencing emotion. The amygdala also processes sensory input. Emotions can be positive, like hope, pleasure, love, joy, curiosity, calm, inspiration, and contentment. Then there are difficult emotions, like sadness, fear, hopelessness, grief, anxiety, confusion, guilt, shame, disgust, rejection, embarrassment, and anger. The amygdala triggers the flight or fight/stress response when we experience difficult emotions.

When we encounter a situation, we have thoughts. We then experience emotion, which often brings physical sensations to the body. We link emotions to our beliefs and perspective or how we see the world. Then we tie meaning to it. When we connect meaning to emotion, based on experience, we have a feeling. Feelings are subjective, and we can express them.

Emotions can stem from sensory stimuli since the amygdala also processes sensory input. Some tweens and teens process sensory information differently. Their heightened or lowered processing of sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, and body awareness can significantly impact their emotional responses and behavior.

how can teens handle emotions and embody mental health & wellness?

1. Let them stop

Experiencing difficult emotions, mainly when triggered, is not a permanent thing. The stop creates space between the stimulus and the response or reaction. When big and intense emotions confront teens, allow them to pause. They might not have the opportunity to slow down physically, but they can slow down in their mind. Like the elephant, teens can learn to stop and attend to their emotions. When these emotions threaten to take over, they can put on the brakes. Consider it a temporary stopover that allows them to consciously and immediately take charge instead of losing their cool. The pause also helps them see that they can be in control of their behavior.

2. Use the senses

Access and see emotion/s. Teens can pay attention to their physiology. What are the sudden sensations they are experiencing? Heart racing? Head spinning? Palms sweating? Rising temperature? What are those physical cues that their bodies are sending them? Teens can do a body scan when strong emotions threaten to overtake them. The elephant uses its body to process the experience. We see the elephant's curiosity as it explores the bones thoroughly. Teens can take this opportunity to separate themselves from the emotion. Look at it from afar. Embrace the awareness that emotion is something to be investigated.

3. Accept the experience

Do not try to run away or suppress them. Running away from feelings and emotions does not mean that they are gone. They will come back around one way or another. Denying emotions and feelings can also lead to subsequently dealing with them negatively. There are many negative ways teens deal with challenging situations, pressures, hurts, or painful experiences because of the inability to process emotions. Teens must acknowledge their emotions and feelings. The elephant pays reverence to the bones with curiosity and compassion. Teens can curtsey their emotions and recognize that they are present for a reason.

4. Label your feelings

You have accepted the emotions. Now, what can your teen do to move forward? To get unstuck. Teens need to name the feeling. Putting words to feelings is what distinguishes how different we are from animals. Even though the elephant cannot speak, they sometimes make low rumbles as they process the encounter. Teens should be allowed to verbalize how they feel. Please encourage them to be specific about the feeling to figure out how to cope or handle it.

5. Have go-to strategies or plans

Elephants always stop and acknowledge other dead elephants, a relative or not; it's a ritual. It's their set way of processing this encounter. What can your teen do instead of what they'd want to do out of impulse? Teens need to be aware that what they do in the spur of the moment could be detrimental to themselves or others in an attempt to alleviate their discomfort. It is crucial to establish constructive strategies ahead of time to help them walk through the situation. Learn to respond to triggers in a way that works best for them and supports their well-being and others. Teens need to remember that their feelings and emotions serve them, not the other way around. They serve as a "red alert" to unmet needs. Look at Your Daily Occupation: Hierarchy of Needs. Healthily meeting these needs is paramount to perpetuating emotional regulation.

6. Remember and consider your values and goals.

What are values? Values are those beliefs you use to guide your behavior: the elephants value sticking to their goal of finding food and water to take care of the herd. Their behavior during and after the encounter suggests that they value poise, community, compassion, curiosity, determination, commitment, responsibility, and stability. In this sense, we are referring to positive values. Help teens see the big picture and how positive values can affect their actions or behaviors? Are their emotional reactions in line with their values? Values can help them recall their goals and redirect their energy. If teens can grasp the potential power of values and goals, they can make better choices when experiences challenge their emotional stability.

7. Practice emotional regulation

Emotional regulation is an ongoing process. It is how we proactively guide which emotions we want to nurture, when, and how we want to experience and communicate them. Parents and caregivers should actively provide healthy channels for tweens and teens that help balance their emotions. When emotions are balanced, and teens encounter difficult emotions, they are better able to respond and not react to triggers or challenging situations. There are many ways to practice emotional regulation. Teaching about emotions and coping skills, physical activity, good nutrition, getting enough sleep, breathing techniques, hobbies, family habits (walks, games), and relaxing time are a few ways.

As mentioned in the narrative above, "The little elephants watch the older elephants and sometimes might not know how to respond. They might watch and move around or imitate." The most important way to help your child learn emotional regulation is to model it. Tweens and teens will learn what emotional regulation looks like by watching how parents and caregivers respond to situations, stress, and challenges.

What exactly is emotional regulation, and why is it important?

Regulation for bodily functions is called homeostasis. According to Britannica, "homeostasis is any self-regulating process by which biological systems tend to maintain stability while adjusting to conditions that are optimal for survival." This internal regulation keeps your heart rate, digestion, temperature, and breathing balanced. You do not have to think about these processes; they happen automatically.

On the other hand, emotional regulation is how we manage our emotions through appropriate communication, balance, and mastery. It is a part of self-regulation. Overall, self-regulation of thoughts, emotions, energy, and behavior unlocks inner strength and keeps teens stable to interact with people and meet their goals. For teens, goals can be daily short-term goals like getting through the school day, exercising, doing homework or completing a project, doing chores, dealing with stress, managing your time, looking for a job, or long-term goals such as learning how to drive, saving money, finishing college, eating healthy, etc.

For tweens and teens, emotional regulation is essential for their ability to:

- Adjust or adapt to situations, demands, or obstacles

- Practice self-care

- Relate well with family members

- Make friends and maintain friendships

- Focus on learning

- Complete assignments, projects, & chores

- Participate in recreational & extracurricular activities

- Interact healthily with the community

- Have sound thinking; begin to learn how to plan and execute immediate goals, skills that will benefit them as they transition to young adulthood and adulthood.

Some tweens and teens who struggle with managing emotions need extra support to regulate and express their emotions and a safe outlet to handle strong emotions.

Teens must use adjusting skills to tame emotions to move them from intense emotions to their more calm and relaxed selves. Moving forward, when your teen encounters a problematic emotion, remember that you can practice with them - to stop, sort out their feelings, strategize, and set out. Help them move towards mental health and wellness every day.