Helping Traumatized Youth Build Emotional Regulation Skills

Emotional Regulation Skills for Traumatized Youth  (A DBT Approach)

by Lisa Frede, M.A., R.C.C

Strong, painful emotions are a part of being human, especially part of being a teen or pre-teen, and even more so part of being a young person with a background in complex trauma. We all can benefit from learning more about how emotions work in our minds and bodies. Understanding what they are, identifying the urges that accompany them, and putting words to the experience, helps take the mystery out of ALL OF THE FEELINGS and puts us in control rather than reacting like we’re at their mercy. In my practice working with youth I often draw from the DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) perspective for teaching emotional regulation skills.

What is an Emotion?

Whenever I meet with young clients who are frustrated, confused and suffering as a result of overwhelming emotions I start by teaching them that an emotion shows up as two simple things: a sensation somewhere in our bodies and an urge to act on it. For example, coaching them to pay attention to where they feel the emotion of “anger” results in them noticing, often for the first time, that their fists tend to tighten up or their head fills with pressure or their chest and throat become hot. Often the urge that accompanies it reflects the physical location of the emotion eg. “I want to punch something, anything; I just want to explode; I want to scream.” Recognizing emotions in our body and identifying the urges that accompany those feelings gives us the ability to step back and see that an emotion is just something that we experience, we don’t become it and it won’t swallow us whole. It gives us the power to choose whether to act on that urge or not. If we can just allow emotions to be there, ride them out through distraction, expression and/or activities that calm and soothe us they never stay intense forever. This skill of recognizing and labeling sensations and urges is best learned by practicing with feelings that are less intense such as anticipation, grumpiness, mild anxiety, or frustration. That way, our ability to be aware of and able to label our emotions and urges can gain strength first before we try them in the heat of the moment.

Myths About Emotions

Another exercise I like to do with teens is to identify the spoken or unspoken beliefs they have about emotions. We often decide things about feelings based on our experiences, families, schools or culture that may not be helpful. Even if we logically know they aren’t true, sometimes these mistaken beliefs can dictate how we relate to emotions and often end up causing us problems. Which of the following do you recognize as something you’ve believed to be true?

  • Negative feelings are bad and destructive.
  • Emotions can just happen for no reason.
  • There is a right and a wrong way to feel in every situation.
  • Letting others know that I am feeling bad is a weakness.
  • Being emotional means being out of control.
  • If I feel a certain way, I must act on my feeling.
  • All painful emotions are a result of a bad attitude.
  • If others don’t approve of how I’m feeling, I shouldn’t feel that way.
  • Painful emotions are not really important and should be ignored.

Healthier perspectives on emotions are important to learn to counter old beliefs that may not be serving us well. Some of these are:

  • Emotions are not right or wrong, good or bad, smart or stupid.  They just are.
  • My emotions come from the things in my life that happen to me.
  • Anger, sadness and fear are part of everyone’s life.  It’s ok to feel these emotions.
  • All emotions, including painful and negative emotions, have a purpose.
  • I can act on some emotions and chose to let others pass.
  • Emotions are not facts even though when they’re very powerful they feel “true.”

As well as identifying myths and building a healthier understanding about emotions, sometimes it can be helpful for youth to choose a few strength building statements to repeat to when strong emotions come along. Some even like posting them up in places they will see them often, such as on their bathroom mirror.

Strength Building Statements

  • Even though this is painful, it will pass.
  • Riding out emotions will get easier each time I practice.
  • My feelings are not right or wrong, they just ARE.
  • My emotions happen for a reason and provide me with important information.
  • Having an urge does not mean that I have to DO anything.
  • Only I can determine how I “should” feel in any situation.
  • I’m staying in the situation even though it’s hard.
  • I’m going to make it through.

Building Positive Experiences

Another simple prevention skill for coping with difficult feelings is to deliberately build experiences into our every day that increase positive emotions and make life worth living. This may sound obvious to most of us, but often young people who come from backgrounds of complex trauma may have never been taught to have fun or may have lived in survival mode for so long that they’ve never had a chance to discover things they enjoy. Building enjoyable experiences is important not only with little things in the everyday routine, but also in the long term by organizing things to look forward to next week, next month, next holiday etc. Some ideas to start with are: learning to play a new game, doodling or painting, taking a warm bath, doing hair and/or makeup, watching a funny movie, writing a note to a friend, reading a favorite book, making a gift for someone, going out for ice-cream, making a list of good memories, having coffee or lunch with a friend, walking by the river, journaling, writing a piece of fiction, creating something, taking photos with different themes and posting or printing them, or simply having a nap with a cozy blanket. These activities can even be listed in a calendar as a reminder of positive things to come.

For these emotional regulation skills to have value it’s important that we teach them when our child is in a calm space so that they can start practicing them now as prevention for overwhelming emotions. They are not meant to be taught in the moment of experiencing strong emotion when the brain is on high alert and unable to take in information. Another set of skills from DBT called distress tolerance skills offer help for managing big emotions as they are occurring and will be discussed in a future post.

Further Resources:

Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Class Manuel by Marsha Linehan

About the author

Lisa Frede

Lisa Frede is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and member of our CTR Clinical team. To learn more about her click here click here

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