A University of Illinois study in this month's Child Development reports that teens can become quite aware about their emotional patterns and they can learn to mediate in their emotional episodes and use them in a positive manner.
"There's a stereotype that teens don't manage their emotions, their emotions manage them," said Reed Larson, a professor of family ecology and the Pampered Chef Ltd. Endowed Chair in Family Resiliency at the U of I.
"But this study showed that, in an atmosphere of trust and support, teens can become adept at identifying their emotions, learn to recognize the tricks emotions play on people, and begin to understand not only how to control their emotions, but to use them in positive ways," he added.
The research examined 12 youth programs and found that the students participating in a high-school musical theatre production showed particularly rich emotional growth. Larson conducted open-ended interviews and observations to learn how this growth had taken place. Ten teens were interviewed every two weeks over a three-month period during rehearsals, two adults who led the production were interviewed biweekly, and researchers observed the rehearsals weekly.
"In many ways, this production anticipated an adult workplace. The teens had to work together to achieve a goal, and they gained experience with the emotional dynamics of a group setting. There's nothing like learning how to manage your emotions in a situation in which there are a lot of intense emotions occurring," Larson said.
This particular theatre program had a culture in which everyday emotions, such as exhilaration, disappointment, anger, and anxiety were talked about, and there was wisdom and knowledge about how to deal with those emotions, as well as lots of support, he said.
"Frank talk about emotions doesn't happen in a lot of places. It occurs in some families a lot more than others, and it doesn't happen much in the classroom at all. Expressing emotions requires an atmosphere of trust," he noted.
In the theatre experience, teens learned that some people use emotions to manipulate others, that emotions can be hard to read, and that emotions can play tricks on you and bias your thought processes.
"One thing drama has taught me is that when you're tired, you're more emotional. If I've had a long day or the rehearsal's gone on a little too long, I'm more short-tempered, more emotional in every way than I'd ordinarily be," one teen said.
Most of the teens learned to control positive and negative emotions to keep the production running smoothly. They also realized that their negative emotions could be contagious.
Larson said that parents can promote the emotional growth of their teenagers by "working hard to establish that atmosphere of trust, and there are opportunities for parents to be sensitive."
Larson believes the lessons these teens learned will serve them well in later life.
"In any adult work setting, people are dealing with feelings about success or failure, coping with jealousy, and navigating all the complexities of interpersonal relationships. Unfortunately, many adults express their emotions in destructive ways. If you've learned to manage your emotions as a teenager, you're way ahead of the game," Larson said.