Anyone who has spent time with young people knows that their lives are filled with ups and downs. Growing up and learning to navigate the world is not an easy process, and the emotions that come with it can sometimes seem overwhelming: think about the disappointment of failing a test, the excitement of a formal dance, or the embarrassment of dropping your plate at lunch.
Learning to manage your emotional responses is challenging work that even adults may struggle with.
Young people are building the experiences they need to understand how to manage their own responses—and that means they sometimes spill their emotional energy all over the people around them.
I recently asked my son if he wanted a granola bar and he snarled, “No!” at me like I had offered him a plate of fish heads. I later learned that he’d had a tough interaction with a friend at school and his response had nothing to do with me or rolled oats.
Trusted adults can support youth by helping them view their emotional ups and downs as energy and underlining that every person is responsible for the energy they bring to a relationship.
As people learn to manage their emotional energy, they may develop patterns that impact their relationships with others.
For example, if I often complain to my friend about someone in my peer group, I might be using that friend to manage my emotions. Instead of using healthy coping skills that work for me (I love a good walk in the woods), I am relying on my friend to take some of the uncomfortable energy I am experiencing.
Doing this on occasion is not a big deal—it is normal to share our emotions with friends. But routinely dumping energy on others and neglecting to make room for them in the relationship is not healthy—and if I keep up that behavior, my friends are likely to get tired of my complaints and negativity.
In a healthy friendship, each person takes responsibility for the energy they bring.
Many of us are drawn to certain people because they bring adventurous, curious, or calm energy to the relationship. Questions you can ask to help young people reflect on this idea include “What kind of energy do you look for in a friend?” and “What kind of energy do you bring to a friendship?” Do they look for people who are like them? Or do they want a buddy who balances them out?
We all have different ways we manage our emotional energy—these might include listening to music, going for a walk, taking a hot bath, journaling, exercising, bouncing a ball, drawing, etc.
Helping young people identify their personal coping techniques can set the stage for them to adjust the kind of energy they bring into their relationships. When big emotions or uncomfortable energy show up, having a well of coping techniques to draw from helps young people manage their emotional experiences on their own.
Mastering these skills also helps meet universal youth needs for control, competency, and self-awareness.
If healthy coping techniques are a young person’s go-to response to big energy, they will be able to talk the issue out with their friends without relying on others to manage their emotional responses for them.
Young people will still have times when they need to lean on friends and trusted adults to get through a challenging experience. Encourage young people to make sure their friend is ready before they bring big emotions into a relationship. How do they know when a friend is ready? Ask! Developing a script—“Can I just vent for a minute?” or “My emotions are all over the place, can I tell you about it?”—gives the listener a chance to opt out and also puts a boundary around the challenging energy by signaling that this is a short-term discussion rather than a new way of being.
Big emotions can be overwhelming, and young people often feel they have to sort them out alone. Opening the door to conversations about emotional energy encourages youth to develop self-awareness, coping skills, and appropriate boundaries that will make their friendships stronger and healthier.
Check out this month’s Magnets & Mirrors downloadable worksheets to help guide your conversations and get more ideas for activities that highlight emotional energy.