Adolescents need multiple skills for decisions, emotions and stress

Image provided by the author.

Adolescent capacities to cope with stress, manage emotions and make good decisions are interlinked but too often they are tackled separately.

My casework team was camping during a US Outward Bound course for adolescents*, working in the woods with a dozen delinquent teenagers. If the kids hadn’t been there, many would likely have been in jail. The atmosphere was tense — the kids were tired and frustrated. My team’s enthusiasm was waning. We were missing our “real” lives during this 30-day rehabilitation course. Suddenly, a bright teenager — seemingly well-mannered, but with a violent temper — hurls a shovel at my tent.  I’m inside. I could have ended up in hospital. He could have been sent to prison.

How do you handle something like that? Some might advise: “Deal with how he regulates his emotions. This is about anger management.” But the boy believed that I’d betrayed him, so getting him to control his emotional reaction wasn’t practical if he couldn’t cope with the disappointment of my perceived betrayal. He and I were close; he trusted me when he rarely put his faith in adults. Yet he thought that he’d caught me listening outside his tent and that I’d revealed a secret. In reality, I was wandering around looking for my flashlight, but that didn’t matter at the time.

Others might say: “Deal with his decision-making. He needs help to make decisions in the instant that won’t damage his long-term future, like, for example, landing himself in jail.” But tackling his decision-making in isolation won’t work either, because the long term doesn’t feel all that important when he can’t deal with the let-down of a trusted adult betraying him.

The answer was to take a holistic view, to recognise that all these elements —coping, decision-making and emotional regulation — were intertwined.  That said, if he didn’t feel that I was genuinely invested in what happened to him — if he didn’t trust me —he wasn’t going to be interested in what I had to offer.

So we started with restoring trust. “I was just walking by your tent. I wasn’t listening in,” I reassured him. But he’d lost his belief in me. “Yeah, well, you lie all the time. All the time! You lie about your push-ups!” he shouted. “Every morning, you say you do 50. Ain’t no way you do 50.” After a 14-hour day, in the only clean clothes I had left, I dropped to the ground, in the dark, and gave him 50.

“It’s important to place young people in settings where they can take risks and try out new skills. Active, experiential learning allows them to face their triggers and learn to handle them without getting into trouble.”

And I used humour. I’m half the size of these kids, but they call me Big K. The running joke is that we all pretend I’m just as big as the rest of them. So I tell him that whatever he does, however angry he is right now, “Just don’t make a mistake you’ll regret. Do NOT call me ‘short’.” He’s very upset, but I’m showing him how to come down, showing him that just because we’re at odds, it doesn’t mean it’s over between us. I don’t shame him. He doesn’t lose face in front of the other kids. Nor do I. Once we’ve both settled down, we’ll work through the process that led to this, and sign onto a plan for how he’ll need to behave differently the next time things escalate, if he wants to stay on the course with us.

Three capabilities are intertwined in adolescents

I’m telling this story because so much research and practice aimed at improving adolescent behavior tends to focus on only one of three issues: emotional regulation, coping or decision-making. But my colleagues and I have all worked closely with at-risk youth on the ground. We’ve also conducted our own scientific research. We knew that elements were missing in how programs typically approach adolescents’ problem behavior.

In fact, our detailed review of the research found that developing all three capabilities is critical for helping young people to navigate challenges and to prevent aggression, substance abuse and delinquency. These three skills are also interlinked: progress in one helps with the others. That’s why we advocate more comprehensive programs for adolescents that foster integration of these core skills.

What do we mean by these skills? Emotion regulation is an “organizer”: it helps determine which emotions adolescents have as well as when and how they experience and convey them. Coping concerns managing responses —how they think, feel (mentally and physically) and act — in response to stress or difficulty.

Emotion regulation and coping are clearly linked. For example, when someone is feeling angry or sad, then coping strategies such as cognitive reappraisal and problem-solving are needed. But they might be capacities that an adolescent finds hard to access.

Image provided by the author.

Effective decision-making is about making good choices across all kinds of situations and contexts, particularly when circumstances are highly emotional or challenging. Clearly, this capacity is underpinned by the ability to influence one’s emotional experience and expression as well as by knowing how to cope when emotions are heightened.

Each of these three skills contributes to successful management of daily challenges. They help adolescents to refrain from acting out and to avoid taking part in delinquent behaviors that can sometimes damage their lives. Although much of the work on emotion regulation, coping or decision-making occurs independently from the other two areas, there’s considerable overlap among them.

For example, one common reason adolescents act aggressively is that they perceive the world as hostile. That’s an emotional regulation issue — we need to help adolescents have a sense of agency over their emotional experience and how their emotions are expressed. But it’s also a coping issue: how a teenager can cope better when everything seems hostile.

Overlap reflected in brain development

The overlap can also be seen in adolescent physiology. We know from neuroscience each of these three key capacities is governed from the prefrontal cortex and its underlying neural systems, which are still developing during adolescence. We also know that young people who engage in delinquency, aggression and heavy risk-taking impose greater processing demands on this part of their brains. Their high emotional reactivity and poor decision-making can increase their stress and add to their problems. In short, when adolescents’ cognitive control systems seem to labor more than most simply to manage life’s mundane issues, they tend to find themselves having to deal with additional challenges, greater intensity and more difficulties springing from their own behaviors.

Five lessons

How do you help young people to break out of this vicious circle? Our review of research provides five key observations. First, start young. Evidence shows that programs are most effective in building these skills in childhood. But children change, and effects erode over time. You can’t inoculate children in elementary years against the challenges of adolescence. Skills should be boosted later on.

“Young people are complex. They are facing multiple challenges and will have many motivations. We should reflect on this reality and not be tempted to divide them into tidy packages where the sum of their parts is less than the whole.”

Second, whole-school approaches that build coping, emotion regulation and decision-making skills among teachers and other school staff as well as among students can improve outcomes by reinforcing social behavior. It’s better still if family’s and parents’ skills are also boosted. However, adolescence provides terrific opportunities for young people to lead their own change. It’s a stage when autonomy increases, as well as the capacity for abstract thinking and social understanding. So messages about skills that help to navigate life’s challenges — self-control, decision-making and coping — can resonate with this age group.

Third, it’s important is to place young people in settings where they can take risks and try out new skills — for instance, the Outward Bound wilderness course I mentioned. Active, experiential learning lets them face their triggers and learn to handle them without getting into major trouble. Some active learning frameworks, such as sports and music, involve strategic thinking even though such key skills may not be explicitly targeted.

Fourth, research shows not only the positive emotional benefits that can be gained from rethinking issues, solving problems and learning acceptance. It also shows the negative effects of suppressing emotions, avoiding feelings and ruminating. So we should teach young people (and help them practice) how to recognise and manage emotions rather than avoid them.

Finally, programs that only focus on cost-benefit analysis of anti-social decision-making or on negative consequences are unlikely to work. That’s because they don’t reflect how teenagers think. This narrow approach fails to recognise that kids sometimes behave badly for the rush, or because they’re bored or as an escape valve for pressures or worries. Effective programs must reflect real life. So they should address how to handle not only major life events but also daily hassles, problems with peers and family — the full range of challenges that contribute to adolescents’ problematic decision-making.

Young people are complex. They face multiple challenges and will have multiple motivations. We should reflect on this reality and not be tempted to divide them into tidy packages where the sum of their parts is less than the whole. Take my Outward Bound student. He made it through the next 13 days without any problems. No doubt, life continues to throw him major challenges. But he now has a few more options in his toolbox to tackle them.


Portions of the research described here were supported by a grant from the Australian Institute of Criminology through the Criminology Research Grants Program. The views expressed are the responsibility of Kathryn Modecki and are not necessarily those of the AIC.

* While Outward Bound no longer serves adjudicated youth, their Intercept Program is designed for families with teens struggling at home or school.

Policy Implications

Too many programs are focused on singular issues, when we know that externalizing is an outgrowth of compound developmental risk. It simply doesn’t make sense to partition complex problems into singular deficits, and assume that treating one shortfall will inexplicably overcome critical challenges in others.

Practical Implications

Children don’t do things for no reason and antisocial behavior can be adaptive in certain contexts. We need better understand adolescents’ motivations for engaging in externalizing behaviors and give them better options.

Kathryn Modecki

Kathryn Modecki

Menzies Health Institute Queensland and School of Applied Psychology at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia; Honorary Research Fellow, School of Psychology & Exercise Science, Murdoch University, Western Australia.

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Original research and references

  1. Modecki KL, Zimmer-Gembeck M & Guerra N Emotion regulation, coping and decision making: Three linked skills for preventing externalizing problems in adolescence Child Development, February 2017