Mental Health

Self-Reflection Helps Teens Get Over A Fight, Improves Emotional Regulation

Self-reflection
Like adults, teens improve their mood when they use self-distancing strategies. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Research has shown adults who step back from a situation making them angry, as opposed to dwelling or ruminating on it, improves their emotions. And a new study set out to see if there was a similar effect among adolescents.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan asked 226 adolescents ages 11-20 about a recent, angering event, such as a fight. Adolescents reflected on their experience, pin-pointed why they felt angry, and told researchers how they felt and thought about their overall experience. To better assess adolescents, researchers asked certain questions, including, “When you saw the fight again in your imagination…how much did you feel like you were seeing it thought your own eyes versus watching the fight happen from a distance?”

The results showed adolescents who took time for reflection were less upset compared to adolescents who dwelled on the event. Turns out, like adults, adolescents who separate themselves from the situation in order to look at it differently are “more likely to reconsider the events in meaningful and insightful ways.” More importantly, they’re less likely to replay their negative emotions and blame other persons involved.

"Mentally stepping back from the event didn't mean the youth were avoiding their problems," Rachel E. White, lead study author and postdoctoral researcher at the UPenn, said in a press release. "In fact, they were dealing with them in a more adaptive way."

Separate research from Ohio State University explained self-distancing, which they found calms aggression, is essentially the act of imaging yourself as a fly on the wall; how would a fly on the wall see your given situation?  It’s a simple intervention anyone can use when they’re angry — and it debunks the existing idea rumination is the better strategy.

“Many people seem to believe that immersing themselves in their anger has a cathartic effect, but it doesn’t. It backfires and makes people more aggressive,” Brad Bushman, a co-author of the Ohio State study, said.

White added the results of her team’s study suggest self-distancing strategies during adolescent years is critical to regulating emotions as an adult. Emotional regulation is exactly how it sounds: the process of regulating our emotions so we don’t say or do something we will regret when we’re not so angry or sad. Psychology Today cited emotional regulation can also benefit mood, compassion, and empathy.

Adults who might have mastered these distancing strategies emotions (teach us your ways) might consider teaching them to adolescents. White and her team believe this can teach adolescents the strategies, as well as how to implement them.

Source: White RE, Kross E, and Duckworth AL. Spontaneous Self-Distancing and Adaptive Self-Reflection Across Adolescence. Child Development, 2015.

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