A special thanks to Medi-Share, a healthcare sharing ministry, for sponsoring this Parent Guide.
What is emotion?
An emotion is “a mind and body’s integrated response to a stimulus of some kind.”
“In psychology, emotion is often defined as a complex state of feeling that results in physical and psychological changes that influence thought and behavior. Emotionality is associated with a range of psychological phenomena, including temperament, personality, mood, and motivation. ”
As you’d expect, emotions are complex, and there are multiple theories that try to explain the relationship between our thoughts (minds), actions (bodies), and feelings (hearts).
Feelings involve interpretation. If someone has jittery hands and is tapping their feet, they could be either anxious or excited. If someone’s shirt is sweat-stained and their face is hot, they could be angry, but not necessarily. Knowing their context might help us understand the way their bodies are behaving.
In other words, memory shapes the way someone feels about something. To some people, petting a dog is relaxing, but to someone who’s been bitten by a dog, the same experience is frightening.
These are all examples of external stimuli causing internal reactions (emotions). But what about those days when we feel mopey or lethargic for no apparent reason? What about your teen’s seemingly erratic outburst when you asked how their day went? What about generalized depression that doesn’t seem to have one cause?
As Christians, we are on a journey of total redemption and transformation, following Jesus’ way with no part of us left behind. As Peter Scazzero put it, “It is not possible to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature.” Loving God includes every aspect of ourselves—hearts, souls, minds, and bodies. This guide focuses on the heart, exploring how our teens can develop and mature emotionally.
Why is my teen so moody?
Puberty: that phase—at 10 to 11ish for girls and 11 to 12ish for boys—of having to figure everything out again. A changing body and mysterious mood swings make for a wild but important time. Hormones are partly to blame, but brain development is actually the main culprit of the chaos.
Teen brains mimic the production of gray matter that happens in infancy and early development. This gray matter, which develops mostly in the frontal lobe (“the control center for ‘executive functions’ such as planning, impulse control and reasoning” and the final area of the brain to mature), means new synapses and therefore new connections.
So, what’s happening emotionally during puberty?
- Compared to children, teens experience a reduction in daily positive emotions. They don’t tend to experience more negative emotion than adults do, they just haven’t learned how to handle their negative feelings as well as most adults can.
- The roller coaster analogy is pretty accurate. Teens have high highs, low lows, and big jumps between emotional states, which can feel jarring for the people around them.
- Teens start to experience more complex emotions than they did as children (mixtures of positive and negative at the same time). The complexity is new, and they can have a hard time determining what they’re actually feeling.
Many teenagers secretly worry that they’re crazy. They remember when they didn’t feel this dis-regulated (even just a few months ago, before they entered puberty) and can wonder if they’ve lost it. This is why your reassurance that they will be ok and that they are completely normal is crucial.
How do I help my teen regulate their emotions?
Teens experience development that is so intense that it rivals the first two years of life. Everything changes for a teen: body development, hormone levels, sleep patterns, eating habits, social pressures, and school requirements. These are amongst the reasons why teens require so much sleep. Adolescents are going through so much intense development, and they need the restorative power that sleep provides.—Teen Lifeline
It’s often best to start with small, manageable lifestyle changes. For instance, is your teen getting enough sleep? Johns Hopkins pediatrician Michael Crocetti explains that “teens need 9 to 9½ hours of sleep per night—that’s an hour or so more than they needed at age 10.”
Sleep deprivation, or getting less than the recommended amount of sleep each night, is linked to mood swings, irritability, depression, anger, and anxiety. This can be a hard one for teenagers because their circadian rhythms shift back during puberty, making a bedtime before 11pm physically difficult.
Dr. Crocetti feels that it’s best to talk with your teen about why good sleep is important, and then to tie healthy sleep patterns to other privileges. For example, his son isn’t allowed to drive to school if he didn’t get enough sleep the night before, which makes sense given the tie between car accidents and drowsiness.
In addition, what is your teen eating? Are they exercising? Are they spending time outside, soaking up some vitamin D? Purely physical activities influence the way we feel about ourselves and the situations we’re in.
Help your teen think about the daily activities that boost their confidence, help them feel alert, and generally put them in a better mood. Then think about how they can make time in their schedule for those rhythms.
Why do we have emotions?
A key term here is “emotional literacy,” or the ability to recognize and decode what is happening internally. Our emotions, even the uncomfortable ones that we would rather avoid, are always telling us something:
- Anger is a sign that we value something that is being threatened, and gives us the energy to defend that value.
- Sadness encourages us to withdraw from too many activities for a while to rest and heal.
- Crying lets the people around us know that we need care.
- Fear primes us to fight or escape something dangerous.
- Anxiety can be repurposed as energy that increases our performance in school or work.
- Jealousy lets us know that a relationship is important to us.
- Feeling overlooked in a friendship alerts us to the possibility that we aren’t being cared for and that it might be time to move on.
But emotions are finicky. They aren’t always easy to interpret. Think about what would happen if we trusted every emotion or desire we had while working out: our muscles are on fire, we’re sweating, out of breath, and it’s honestly not fun. But that discomfort doesn’t automatically mean that we should end our gym session.
In the same way that physical discomfort is actually necessary for someone to gain mobility and strength, emotional discomfort can be a part of growth. Pushing through boredom (“I won’t look at my phone even though I really want to. Instead, I will finish writing this paper.”), working through relational conflict (“Hey, we need to talk” even though conflict makes you anxious), or healing from loss (choosing to journal or dwell on the pain for a while instead of numbing or distracting with Netflix) all require sitting with difficult emotions.
Teens may wonder if there is space in Christianity for negative emotions (discontent, jealousy, anger, inadequacy, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation…). A young lady once told an Axis speaker who came to her school, “I feel like Christians aren’t allowed to be sad. And if you’re sad, you have to pretend that you’re joyful.” This grieved our team because someone had taught her a flat, “easy-answer” reduction of the Gospel, when in reality, following Jesus leaves no part of the human experience behind.
Dan Allender notes in The Cry of the Soul, “The absence of tumult, more than its presence, is an enemy of the soul. God meets you in your weakness, not in your strength. He comforts those who mourn, not those who live above desperation. He reveals Himself more often in darkness than in the happy moments of life.”
So there is ample space in Christianity for not having it all together, for feeling pretty crumby, and for saying exactly where we’re at and how angsty we are. And there is also a place for speaking truth over those emotions.
We have a beautiful example of exploring the landscapes of our hearts in the Psalms. Psalm 42 says, “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” The Psalmist lets himself rant and moan and languish in sorrow and frustration. He takes the time to describe and parce out his emotions, knowing that he can’t change the way he feels if he doesn’t first know how he feels.
How do I help my teen become emotionally mature?
Sean Donohue, founder of Parenting Modern Teens, gives this list of emotionally mature life-skills that teens should practice:
- “Teen uses feeling words to share emotions and inner-life with his/her parents.
- Teen is assertive and articulate when having conflict with others while also practicing kindness, curiosity and win/win peacemaking approaches.
- Teen is able to balance the screens in his/her life with social or physical activities.
- Teen practices ‘grit’ and a ‘growth mindset’ when life obstacles occur.
- Teen practices ‘self-care’ on a regular basis to regulate emotions.
- Teen is able to confidently share life areas he/she is gifted or strong in, and areas he/she struggles.
- Teen has a healthy relationship with drugs, alcohol and vaping and does not regularly self-medicate pain away.
- Teen practices kindness and selflessness towards others in their family and world.”
It’s a daunting list. Maybe you feel like your teen is pursuing many of those skills, or maybe you feel like they’ll never be emotionally mature. Wherever you find yourself, take a breath. There is no formula for raising perfect teens (or even just passable teens). There aren’t perfect parents, either. Yet God is good in the midst of our best efforts that still aren’t enough.
What do I do when it just isn’t working?
A friend of Axis works for an elementary school. She told us about a conversation amongst the teachers and staff. It’d been an especially rough day for the kindergarten class. Well, for one kinder in particular: the class troublemaker. There had been numerous meltdowns throughout the day, which culminated in a refusal to clean up the blocks. An undaunted teacher insisted on picked-up blocks. Troublemaker refused. 15 minutes went by. Then 30. Mom arrived to get Troublemaker. Mom picked up the blocks since Troublemaker refused. And this is what some of the teachers had to say later: “If only mom did such and such, Troublemaker wouldn’t be such a troublemaker.” “If Troublemaker lived in my house, I wouldn’t let her get away with such behavior,” etc.
That’s when our friend spoke up, “Sometimes kids are just stubborn and hard. And even if you do all the ‘right things’ they still melt down and have fits and make trouble. From what I’ve observed, this mom is doing the best she can. And I think we should be careful of thinking that there’s a simple formula or fix for Troublemaker.”
We agree. What works for some families may not work in your teen’s case. Often to our dismay, there aren’t 5 easy steps to raising emotionally mature teens.
Being a parent is hard. You are more invested in your teen than anyone else is. You care desperately that they mature and grow, and sometimes all of that care gets twisted up and intertwines your emotions with your teen’s emotions. Their anger or frustration can rub off on you. And vice versa. You don’t get the luxury of distance, the emotional (and physical) distance that teachers and coaches and mentors and youth pastors have. They are outside observers and cheerleaders. Their involvement in your teen’s life probably has an end date, and it has limits. This is why having other caring adults in your teen’s life is so important—they don’t have to care as much as you do. Which means that sometimes they have a more neutral perspective, more persuasive ability. There’s less at stake for them.
What we’re saying is that you have permission to cut yourself some slack. There will probably be moments where we need to apologize to our teens because we didn’t give them the attention or care that they needed, or we didn’t respond calmly or kindly. Thankfully, every person in human history has been raised by imperfect parents. We’re all in good company. And as cheesy as it sounds, God is faithful in the midst as our truly and completely good Father.
What does the church teach us about emotion?
Let’s start with neoplatonism, a big word for the way that Plato’s philosophies infiltrated his culture, and therefore the early church. One of his stickiest ideas was the division between the physical world and the world of forms (the ideal or the spiritual world). He saw the natural world as merely a bad reflection of the “real (spiritual) world,” and that idea permeated some expressions of Christianity, resulting in many Christians adopting a kind of apathy toward, or even distaste for, the body. A “This world is passing away, we’re just waiting for heaven” mentality.
What does neoplatonist gnosticism have to do with emotions? If you’ve ever had someone try to give a spiritual answer to your heartache, you’re very familiar with its unfortunate application. Saying true things often doesn’t make us feel better. “God is in control, you just have to trust Him” doesn’t change the feeling of uncertainty that comes from losing a job. “You’ll see this person again in heaven” doesn’t make grieving the death of a friend any easier. “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything give thanks!” doesn’t cause anxiety to instantly melt away.
What does Scripture actually say about emotion?
Thankfully, the Gospel can coexist with present suffering. We don’t have to ignore our circumstances or detach from reality in order to follow Jesus. In fact, Jesus’ way often involves feeling more, not less. He wept when his friend died—a loss of emotional control that might have embarrassed the people he was around. He sobbed even when he knew that Lazarus was about to come back to life.
Fixing pain feels helpful and good. Watching someone suffer is uncomfortable and hard. Jesus could have waltzed into Mary and Martha’s house, wiped their tears away, shushed their grief, and told them that he had a solution. He was going to bring their brother back from the dead. Instead, he opened himself up to their torrent of loss. He felt what they felt: Lazarus wasn’t coming back, he was unexpectedly snatched away, a gaping hole left in their world that no one else would fill. What would meals be like now that he was gone? Who would tease Mary about her cooking skills? Who would make Martha laugh when no one else could?
Perhaps Jesus was also feeling the weight of what Lazarus’ death represented: the state of being human in a fallen world. No-one escapes death. Everyone grieves, because eventually, everyone dies. Every relationship will eventually tear apart, even the best relationships in the world. And Jesus felt, more rightly and more deeply than we will probably ever feel, how wrong this is. How against God’s beautiful design death is. How unnatural it is for separation and heartache and loss to haunt every person’s experience. His emotions cried out with God the Father’s heart, “This is not the way things should be!”
But engaging this kind of anguish is hard. It’s easier to stay numb, anesthetized to difficulty and pain. But what if the only way we can experience real joy, true gratitude, and raucous praise is by staying alert, keeping our hearts open and aware, which means they are also open to woundedness?
As the Biblical Counseling Coalition put it, “Good theology should lead us not only to think God’s thoughts after Him but also to experience God’s affections after Him.”
Why are emotions important?
Many early church fathers and mothers understood discipleship differently than we do today. While reading Scripture and thinking about God are important practices, they understood that humans aren’t primarily motivated by ideas or thoughts. James K.A. Smith explains in his book, You Are What You Love,
As lovers—as desiring creatures and liturgical animals—our primary orientation to the world is visceral, not cerebral. In this respect, ancient wisdom about spiritual disciplines intersects with contemporary psychological insight into consciousness. The result is a picture that should lead us to appreciate the significant role of the unconscious in action and behavior.
He goes on to say, “Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves. He isn’t content to simply deposit new ideas into your mind; he is after nothing less than your wants, your loves, your longings.”
The Hebrew word for heart, “lev,” encompasses someone’s thoughts, emotions, motivations, and physical life force. Jeremiah 17:9 reminds us that our hearts are broken (deceitful). Sometimes this verse is misunderstood as saying that only our emotions are broken (deceitful). But actually our brokenness extends to our intellects and even our bodies. The center of our being, the core of who we are, doesn’t function the way it should. We love the wrong things, we think evil thoughts, we act selfishly…which is why we need new hearts; for our hearts of stone to be replaced with hearts of flesh.
This is why being given a new life in Christ (being raised from death to life) is so amazing! Our entire selves are being redeemed. God gives us the capacity to love, think, feel, and act rightly. Our emotions can be directed toward the good, beautiful, and true.
The affections are the forcible and sensible motions of the heart or the will, to a thing or from a thing, according as it is apprehended to be good or evil… The affections are the feet of the soul: for as the body goes with its feet to that which it loves, so the soul goes with its affections to that which it loves…By anger he moves out to revenge; by desire he moves out to obtain; by love he moves out to enjoy; by pity he moves out to relieve… The affections are directly related to the apprehension of good and evil. When there is little apprehension of good and evil, the affections are weak and may hardly work on the body at all. But, when there is great apprehension of either, not only the soul is deeply affected, but the body also.—William Fenner
Hypocrisy, something Christians are frequently accused of (often for good reason), involves saying one thing and doing the opposite. It’s something that every person is probably guilty of at one time or another. Hypocrisy is so angering because we recognize that words aren’t enough. Even passionate and beautiful declarations fall flat if they don’t get lived out. Deep emotions can’t only be expressed verbally; if they are real, they will be strong enough to be enacted.
This is why God’s love (and Word) is trustworthy. God is the perfect expression of perfect emotion and perfect Word. God is love. Jesus is truth walking (the Word made flesh). In Christ’s life, God’s deep passion for the world is acted out. God’s love physically invades time and space. He doesn’t just say that He loves us a lot. He demonstrates His love for us, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. God doesn’t just talk. He doesn’t just cry. He acts. This is the kind of emotional integrity that Christians are called to as we follow Jesus’ way.
So how do we develop right affections?
A Navajo proverb describes emotions this way: all of us have a small triangle with pointy edges spinning around in our hearts. When we move in the wrong direction our triangle tilts sharply to the side, pricking our heart. The more we ignore the pain, the more furiously it tilts, trying to keep us from doing wrong. But over time our heart forms a protective callous; the triangle’s edges get blunt, and no matter how quickly it spins, we can’t feel its warnings anymore.
This proverb reminds us that our affections (the old-timey word for emotion) can be good. When properly directed, our loves, longings, and inclinations draw us to God, move us toward others, and spur us to act rightly. But if we ignore the promptings of the Holy Spirit for long enough, if we numb or suppress compassion or sorrow or even anger, those emotions will become so weak that we’ll barely be able to feel them anymore.
As we follow Jesus we learn how to feel, because God is actually renewing our emotions. And our habits can either help or hurt this process of feeling rightly. Reflect on these questions for a moment:
- When was the last time you were moved by the brokenness in the world (a news story, something that happened in a friend’s life…)? When was the last time that you cried?
- When was the last time that you rejoiced with someone who was rejoicing?
- Have you ever felt grieved by your own sin?
- Have you ever experienced righteous anger (perhaps about the injustice in our world)?
- Have you ever felt numb? Like you should have been having an emotional reaction to a situation, but were unable to feel anything?
How do I teach my teen to express their emotions well?
Pray for true emotions. When we are disgusted and angered by atrocity, when we rejoice with a friend, when we grieve with the brokenhearted, we are practicing redeemed emotionality. We can thank God for these emotions that reflect how He feels for and cares about the world. And when we feel nothing, a numbness or apathy when something should move us, we can ask God to awaken our hearts to feel what He feels.
Minimize overreactions. Imagine that your teen has had a really rough day and exclaims, “Gosh, things are just really hard right now. I wish I didn’t have to be here anymore.” One response is to immediately rush them to the ER because you’re afraid that they’re having thoughts of suicide. This response is problematic for a few reasons. Your concern may escalate your teen’s concern (“gosh, maybe something really is wrong with me. Maybe I am suicidal, maybe things are really bad”). They also may stop sharing what they feel with you because they’re afraid that you’ll overreact and they don’t want to cause you stress. In that situation, it’s probably a good idea to ask a few questions. “Honey, when you said you don’t want to be here anymore were you talking about hurting yourself in any way?” From there your teen can clarify what they actually meant, and you have a better idea of what next steps are necessary (if they really are self-harming or have a plan to end their life, it is entirely appropriate to go to the ER or to make an appointment with their physician).
Help them name what they’re feeling. This emotion wheel gives more nuanced language than the 6 basic emotions (sad, happy, angry, afraid, surprised, and disgusted). Once your teen has a better idea of what they’re feeling, they can start to think about the best response to that feeling (feeling abandoned vs. feeling left out). It’s also helpful to think about when they first started feeling that emotion (“I was in class this morning, and saw all of my friends passing notes, but they didn’t pass any to me. That’s when I started to feel sad, and I was specifically feeling left out.”)
There are times that we feel off for no apparent reason. Remind your teen that it’s ok to talk back to their emotions, that just because a feeling rises up in them doesn’t make it true. Of course, talking to our hearts doesn’t instantly “fix” the negative emotion, but it’s good to remember that feelings don’t have to control us (this is along the same lines as asking, “Did I get enough sleep? Do I need a snack? Is there another physical reason that I could be feeling off?”).
Share your feelings. We absorb the habits of the people around us. You are teaching them how to manage and share their feelings by the way that you handle your own emotions. Do you let yourself cry in front of your teen? Are you willing to overflow with joy?
How do I keep from losing it when my teen is losing it?
If you’re like most families, you and your teen know how to push each other’s buttons. You’re around each other a lot, which means that some conflict is unavoidable. And you care about each other (and about the ways that the other person’s behavior reflects on you). That eye roll this morning wasn’t just frustrating, it was embarrassing, because your teen dismissed you in front of another parent. That over exaggerated hug (intended to come off jokingly and with love) felt like an encroachment of freedom, which is why your teen pushed you away the other day (which made you feel unwanted).
Our teen’s emotions affect us. Which is why emotional differentiation is such a helpful skill. It includes not tying our sense of identity to our teen’s emotional state or to the way they present themselves to others. remaining calm when arguing, and bringing clarity to their emotions instead of getting wrapped up in their sadness or fear.
Sometimes, too much empathy (being too influenced by each other’s emotions), presents as emotional enmeshment:
a relationship…in which personal boundaries are permeable and unclear. A good example of this is when a teenage daughter gets anxious and depressed and her mom, in turn, gets anxious and depressed. When they are enmeshed the mom is not able to separate her emotional experience from that of her daughter even though they both may state that they have clear personal boundaries with each other. Enmeshment between a parent and child will often result in over involvement in each other’s lives so that it makes it hard for the child to become developmentally independent and responsible for her choices.
The opposite of enmeshment, disengagement, is just as damaging. This is when family members are so removed from each other that they know nothing about what is happening in the other person’s life.
So when our teen is yelling in frustration, or when their depression starts to overwhelm us, what can we do to keep ourselves from getting sucked into the vortex of their emotions, while also loving and approaching them with empathy?
New Haven Residential Treatment Center explains,
A good relational balance involves family members recognizing that they have different emotions and can make independent decisions, while also recognizing that their decisions affect others. In these relationships, a parent can see that their daughter is upset and anxious and can even empathize with her, but this does not get the parent into an aroused emotional state in which they feel like they have to fix the emotion (or that which caused the emotion) of their daughter. They empathize and show nurturing concern for their daughter but allow her the emotional space to solve her own problems with their support.
It’s hard to watch someone we love struggle. It’s hard to sit with unresolved, negative emotions. There isn’t a formula for this. It’s complex, and sometimes counterintuitive.
So instead of giving possible action steps, we’d like to end by praying with you. Wherever you find yourself, take a breath (deep inhale…deep exhale).
Father, we turn our attention to You. You gave us emotions as a way to reflect who You are. You are not distant or apathetic or cold. You are moved by the brokenness in the world. You allow Yourself to be wounded and disappointed by our rebellion. Your heart swells with affection and care and delight for us. Thank You. For loving us as we are.
We confess that this parenting thing is difficult. How do we love our teens? How do we connect with them? How do we guide them well? How do we sit with them in moodiness or anxiety or frustration or numbness? How do we appreciate the intensity of their emotional highs? How do we ground them when they seem all over the place? Give us discernment, to see our teens as they are, and to be for them what they need. When we are not enough, when we fail, You are enough, and You never fail. Give us peace that surpasses understanding. Thank You for never leaving or forsaking us.
(If you can, set a timer for 2 minutes of silence to listen for anything God might want to tell you).
In Jesus’ name we are able to pray. Amen.
The Daily Examen: This is a prayer of review. Of walking back through the day, noticing the good and the bad, and asking God where He was present. It’s a great way to observe emotional highs and lows and what events our feelings may have been tied to (“I got a text from my friend and that made me feel really valued and happy”).
For the car (this is especially good for road trips): Using Spotify or Apple Music, let everyone in the car que a song for each category that you choose (and just keep queuing until the drive is over). For instance, “a song you’re that’s been on repeat lately,” or “the last song that made you cry,” or “a song that makes you feel nostalgic,” or “a song that represents your taste in music,” etc. This is a way to have an emotional experience together, instead of just talking about feelings.
Try this Emotional Intelligence Worksheet: If you think that your teen could benefit from processing their emotions more formally or intentionally, we recommend looking into Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and downloading this emotional intelligence worksheet. It’s written from a Christian perspective and involves identifying a negative emotion, evaluating the possible lies that could be behind that response, and then praying Scripture over those lies.