I went over to James Lick Middle School last week to speak with some of their 8th graders about healthy vs unhealthy ways to deal with difficult emotions. They had just finished Sherman Alexie's excellent book, The Absolutly True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The story describes how a young artist uses his drawings to cope with the stressors of growing up in poverty on an American Indian reservation. The book also illustrates some pretty unhealthy ways to deal with stress, loss and hopelessness as demonstrated by a number of characters who battle with alcoholism.
The 8th graders were really good at identifying unhealthy coping strategies, drawing from the book as well as personal experience. What was harder, however, was coming up with more positive strategies to engage in when things get tough. "We know what we're not supposed to do," commented one student. "We just don't know what to do instead." Before I get sidetracked on the lack of emotional education in our schools, I'll share the four main strategies we identified together.
1) Find your support. And talk. Maybe it's a longtime friend. Maybe it's an adult you trust. Identify the people around you who will listen. Teenagers are exploring and identifying the peer relationships they have all the time. The most supportive friends may have gone through a similar experience or suffered a similar loss. Adults may be able to pull from previous life experiences to help. Many teens (especially boys) at the beginning of treatment tell me, "What's the point? Talking about it won't solve anything." Many of the situations in which people experience difficult emotions involve an element of hopelessness, that the situation is beyond anyone's control. While talking may not solve the problem, the act of supportive listening and emotional expression can be extremely helpful.
2) Work your memories. When dealing with loss, take solace in your memories. While the people in our lives may leave suddenly, our memories of them belong to us forever. Sharing memories with others experiencing the same loss can be particularly helpful. People naturally gravitate towards each other after shared trauma or loss. Use this opportunity to share what you remember.
3) Find some positive. No matter how small, finding positive thoughts is helpful in buffering difficult emotions and coping with difficult feelings. "I'll just get through today," or "I can try again tomorrow," can help bring perspective and rationale to a chaotic situation brought on by tragedy or trauma.
4) Take time to escape. Isn't this supposed to be in the unhealthy column? True, when people get stuck using escape to isolate or as their only strategy. But in moderation, escape can provide a welcome and healthy break from dealing with difficult emotions. This is why many people seek to return to their usual routine after a traumatic event or loss. It's OK to think of other things for a while. It's OK to give yourself a break.
Why don't teens gravitate towards these behaviors? Unhealthy behaviors like avoidance and numbing work quickly, satisfying their impulsive side. Also, just like the kids I talked to last week, they simply aren't taught a more positive alternative. Modeling some of these strategies may give your teen the example they need to deal with the stressors in their lives in a healthy way. Talk explicitly about these strategies and help your teen to develop a healthy repertoire of how to cope when life seems out of control.