Teaching Emotional Agility to Teens

For some people, the term “agility,” brings up images of border collies jumping through hoops, but for psychologists, the word conjures up a host of skills and abilities that can make life easier when times get tough. In her book, “Emotional Agility,” author, Harvard professor, and psychologist, Susan David walks us through what emotional agility is, and how it can be a helpful tool to teach.

David believes that  emotional agility is “being aware and accepting of all your emotions, even learning from the most difficult ones,” She says emotions are data, not directions, and that teens who learn how to discern the two, are at a great advantage.

In order to help teens navigate through their emotions, David advises teaching important tools like the fact that emotions pass, and that we can learn from them. She also believes that “Courage is Fear Walking.” In other words, courage is not the absence of fear; we can feel our fears without being afraid of them, or letting them slow us down.

We like this idea, and it is very much in line with how we do therapy. We too teach that emotions are important events, and that we feel them for a reason. We don’t believe that emotions are good or bad, but rather, that they all serve a relevant purpose.We also believe that when folks can learn to feel their emotions without necessarily acting on them; well, that’s freedom right there.

If this approach sounds familiar, it’s because Eastern philosophies, like Buddhism, have been teaching similar ideas for centuries. In fact, the idea that only certain emotions are worthy is merely a cultural phenomenon, and we say, it’s an outdated one at that!

So, let’s take a look at how these ideas would play out in a practical situation.

Kendra is a 14 year-old-girl who came home from school crying because her best friend told her that she doesn’t want to be friends anymore, as 14 year-old-girls sometimes do. Here’s how a parent teaching emotional agility might respond to this situation:

  • Let her know that what she is going through is very difficult

  • Convey that you see her, and her situation

  • Help her come up with possible responses, without picking the best one for her

  • Help her break down the situation into smaller, more manageable parts

  • Resist the urge to solve the problem for her

In a sense, teaching emotional agility is an opportunity for parents to bear witness to their teen’s emotions without giving in to the natural parental instinct to fix everything. That also means refraining from saying things like, “Don’t cry,” or “It’s not that bad,” because for your teen, in that moment, it is that bad, and the two greatest gifts that you can give a child who is suffering are: One, the gift of your presence, and Two, an understanding that they are strong enough to handle even the twistiest of life’s obstacle courses.

If you would like to learn more about tools like Emotional Agility, contact us. We are here to help!

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