Navigating Emotional Maturity to Prevent Risky Behavior in Teens
Let’s face it, teenagers have it rough. They’re taking on new responsibilities, struggling with physical and emotional transitions, and just trying to get their lives figured out. But with all these new challenges, teens might find themselves unprepared to shoulder the emotional burden of being an adult.
Taking more difficult and time-consuming classes in school, learning how to navigate peer pressure with real consequences, and entering the job market in the midst of a pandemic can take a toll on your mental wellbeing. Facing this kind of pressure, teens are prone to depression or engaging in risky, anxiety-driven behavior.
If teens don’t have the skills to process their emotions in a mature and level-headed manner, they might bottle up their emotions, become more aggressive, or even shut down. Luckily, there are several ways to help your teen develop emotional maturity to prevent risky behavior.
Here are four pieces of advice to get them started:
1. Don’t Get Lost in the Worst-Case Scenario
One of the most common ways that teens can get lost in a downward emotional spiral is from anxiety about the future. When they have to grapple with the uncertainty of college applications, finding their place in the world, or even how other people will react to bad news, they might buckle under all this built-up pressure. This often occurs when teens don’t have a strong sense of their own identity and self-worth. They start to think that every outcome is going to be the worst-case scenario. But it doesn’t have to be that way!
You can warn your teen about the dangers of overthinking and why it happens. When they understand where their fears are coming from and how often it happens to others, your child might better understand that their anxiety is really being driven by their imagination. Though it’s important to anticipate negative consequences, they should know that it’s usually always worse in their minds.
For example, if your teenager feels like they’re not going to do well on an exam, they might start to stack up all the negative outcomes until the end of time! The failed test leads to a bad grade, which leads to poor college applications, which leads to not getting into college, which leads to never getting a job, which leads to … etc. But if you talk to your teen about humanizing their fears, knowing that everyone fails sometimes, it can show your teen how to adapt to situations. Because your teen is worried about this exam, you might tell them that if they study hard, it’s more likely they’ll do better, but also that their teachers are there to help them if they can’t get the material down.
You can help your teen avoid the risky behaviors that come with anxiety-driven decisions by practicing mental checks. If you notice your teen is starting to spiral, you can point this out and work through the problems together. Once you have a good understanding of the telltale signs of an anxious meltdown, you can remind your teen that they’re getting into an unnecessary headspace. Soon, your teen will be able to recognize these symptoms on their own and learn to self-regulate; now they’re not putting so much importance on the future, but focusing on the present moment with a level-head.
2. Leave Pettiness to Others, It’s not for You
Pettiness is a signature of childish behavior. Talking back, getting the last word, or exhibiting passive aggressive behavior when they don’t want to outright say what’s on their mind. Nobody likes this kind of attitude and it can really dampen your teen’s reputation among their friends and future peers.
You can help root out this behavior by pointing out how hurtful this behavior can be. Not only is it frustrating for the people on the receiving end of the stick, but it will also hurt your child’s ability to effectively be heard. You want your teen to be able to get over the small stuff and the pettiness of others, so it’s important to point out exactly what it looks like and when it occurs.
Managing pettiness is especially important to do when you’re not both in an argument so that your teen can anticipate the emotions that bring about pettiness. Sure, they might think it’s satisfying to get in that little jab in the moment, but they should understand it’s hurtful to everyone in the long run. It might even get your teen into more immediate trouble if they snap at someone dangerous or in a position of power. You can point out that if your teen really wants to win an argument, they can do it by exhibiting well thought out reasoning, calmness, and superior decision making.
One practice that might help your teen leave pettiness at the door is deep breathing and meditation. When your teen recognizes that urge to get back at someone, they can mentally address the situation, and take three calming breaths. On a physical level, this slows down their heart rate and establishes a more serene mindset, the trademark of an emotionally mature adult.
When they’ve let the moment pass, they’ll be able to respond with something genuinely considered. This will achieve one of two satisfying results for your teen in lieu of a petty comment: 1) they’ll be able to communicate their feelings and solutions to the issue at hand with a mature attitude, resulting in a collaboration with their adversaries, or 2) they’ll be able to communicate their feelings and solutions to the issue at hand with a mature attitude, while their adversaries are left to their own petty squabbles.
3.Be Mindful of Others
Teens that are trying to balance college applications heavy duty classes and struggling to figure out their identity are practically treading water. They’re taking on so much that sometimes they can’t help but only think of themselves and their own wellbeing. As a parent, it takes a lot of patience to deal with their self-centered nature, but understand that it’s a survival tactic that’s going to take some mending.
If your teen shows signs of a short temper or rude behavior, it could mean that your child is having difficult with their tasks or their own self-worth.
This is a common cause of teens trying to amplify their own importance or freaking out about the consequences of their responsibilities. To treat this behavior, you can help your teen become more mindful by demonstrating mindfulness.
When you show that you care about what’s going on in their lives, it could help them let their guard down and open up. It’s a perfect opportunity for you to also share what you’re going through and how teamwork can be a solution for what they’re going through. This can help them understand that it’s important to check in with others and reflect on how they impact their friends and family.
You can also help your teen become more mindful by encouraging them to actively engage in helping others. Volunteer opportunities are a great way to consistently keep others in mind while supporting the community.
If your teen is already stacked with a busy schedule, they could do something as simple as checking in with their friends once a week to share what’s going on in each other’s life. Sometimes, we’re so focused on what we’re doing individually, that we forget to hold space for talking about others. If your child is able to invest in their friend group and address how they impact or help one another, they’re more likely to be normalize collective care. When your teen starts to exhibit risky behavior, they’ll have others to help them out as a result of being mindful in the first place.
4. Take Responsibility for Your Actions
This is the big one. Taking responsibility can be difficult for teens because it involves admitting fault sometimes. That can be really difficult for teens who are trying to look out for their self-image and present their lives as idyllic. But not taking responsibility is the work of a child, not an adult. Adults know when to take credit for their achievements and drawbacks. Whether it’s taking a promotion at work for their efforts or learning from when they’ve missed an assignment or forgotten to do a chore, people with mature emotions own their actions.
As we’ve stated before, challenges are learning opportunities, and the same thing can be said for making mistakes. You can point out to your teen that it’s actually a sign of strength and maturity to admit your mistakes and learn from them.
When you own your actions, not only are you demonstrating security in who you are, but you’re also taking note of what lead to the circumstances in the first place.
For example, if your teen chose to hang out with their friends instead of working on a paper for school and they receive a bad grade, it can be looked at as a learning opportunity.
The next time your child has to choose between spending time with friends or completing an important task for school, you could teach them to say something like, “I’m sorry I can’t hang out this weekend. I didn’t take my last assignment seriously and I want to do better on this next one.Could we can hang out on Monday?”
This can be appealing to your teens for two reasons:
1) they are learning to set priorities and won’t have to be stressed later, and 2) they’ll be acting as a role model for their friends.
When your teen exercises responsibility, they’re showing others that they’re reliable, smart, and mature. Kids don’t often think of responsibility as an attractive quality, but you can show them how it exhibits problem-solving and honesty, qualities that their peers will admire and respect.
Taking responsibility also reduces risky teen behavior by eliminating risky situations in the first place. If your teen understands how to assign importance to their tasks and look at their mistakes as opportunities to grow, they could greatly reduce anxiety and feelings of shame or avoidance in their lives.
You can help your teenager develop responsibility by getting them started with a chore chart, talking over their obligations together and establishing what responsibility means, and recognizing the feelings that accompany discomfort around responsibility.
Andy Earle is a researcher who studies parent-teen communication and adolescent risk behaviors. He is the co-founder of talkingtoteens.com, ghostwriter at WriteItGreat.com, and host of the Talking to Teens podcast, a free weekly talk show for parents of teenagers.