Emotional Dysregulation in Teens: Understanding, Symptoms, Causes, and Coping Techniques

Emotional dysregulation in teens is the inability to manage emotions effectively, leading to intense and unpredictable emotional responses. 

Symptoms of emotional dysregulation include frequent mood swings, impulsivity, irritability, and difficulty in managing stress.

Factors causing emotional dysregulation including social and emotional changes, academic and peer pressures, and underlying mental health concerns such as ADHD, anxiety, depression, or PTSD.

Emotional dysregulation is also influenced by factors like early childhood trauma, child neglect, and traumatic brain injury. 

Treatment or coping techniques for emotional dysregulation comprise counseling, cognitive-behavioral therapy, antidepressant medications, and other psychological tools to help individuals learn emotional regulation skills.

What Is Emotional Dysregulation?

Emotional dysregulation is the difficulty in managing or controlling one’s emotions effectively. It involves heightened emotional responses, rapid mood swings, and difficulty in calming down after experiencing intense emotions.

According to Copeland et al. (2014) in their study titled Adult diagnostic and functional outcomes of DSM-5 disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, dysregulation issues are notably prevalent in clinical settings, affecting approximately 26.0–30.5% of children admitted to child and adolescent psychiatric clinics or mental health facilities. 

Furthermore, a recent investigation by Kandsperger et al. (2021), titled Emotional Reactivity and Family-Related Factors Associated With Self-Injurious Behavior in Adolescents Presenting to a Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Emergency Service, highlighted that disturbed emotion regulation, particularly, contributes to self-injurious behavior in a substantial proportion of adolescents seeking assistance from child and adolescent psychiatric emergency services. 

What Are the Symptoms of Emotional Dysregulation?

The symptoms of emotional dysregulation vary widely among teenagers but the following are prevalent:

  1. Intense emotional reactions: Teens experience intense and overwhelming emotions, such as anger, sadness, anxiety, or irritability, that are disproportionate to the situation.
  2. Difficulty calming down: Teens have difficulty calming themselves down once they become upset, leading to prolonged emotional distress.
  3. Impulsive behavior: Teens with emotional dysregulation engage in impulsive or risky behaviors, such as substance abuse, self-harm, or reckless driving, as a way to cope with their emotions.
  4. Mood swings: Teens experience frequent and dramatic shifts in mood, ranging from euphoria to deep despair, often without apparent triggers.
  5. Difficulty maintaining relationships: Emotional dysregulation strains relationships with family members, friends, and peers, as teens struggle to communicate effectively, resolve conflicts, or empathize with others.
  6. Low self-esteem: Teens have negative beliefs about themselves and their abilities, leading to feelings of worthlessness, self-doubt, or shame.
  7. Physical symptoms: Emotional dysregulation also manifests in physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, muscle tension, or fatigue.

How Does Emotional Dysregulation Start?

Various factors  contribute to emotional dysregulation in teenagers, including:

  • Biological factors: Genetics, brain chemistry, and neurobiological differences play a role in predisposing some teens to emotional dysregulation.
  • Environmental stressors: Traumatic events, chronic stress, family conflicts, peer pressure, academic pressure, or significant life changes trigger emotional dysregulation in susceptible teens.
  • Mental health disorders: Emotional dysregulation is commonly associated with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or borderline personality disorder (BPD).
  • Childhood experiences: Adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse, neglect, or attachment disruptions, contribute to emotional dysregulation later in life.
  • Social and cultural factors: Social expectations, cultural norms, and societal pressures influence how teens express and regulate their emotions, leading to difficulties in emotional regulation.

What Coping Techniques Do Teens Use to Emotionally Regulate?

While emotional dysregulation is challenging to manage, there are several effective coping techniques that teens use to regulate their emotions and improve their well-being:

  1. Mindfulness and relaxation techniques: Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, or yoga assist teens to calm their minds and bodies and reduce stress.
  2. Cognitive-behavioral techniques: Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques, such as identifying and challenging negative thoughts, problem-solving, and cognitive restructuring, support teens develop more adaptive ways of thinking and coping with emotions.
  3. Expressive arts therapies: Engaging in creative activities such as art therapy, music therapy, or journaling provides teens with a creative outlet for expressing their emotions and processing difficult feelings.
  4. Healthy lifestyle habits: Regular exercise, balanced nutrition, adequate sleep, and avoiding substance abuse aids teens in managing stress, regulating mood, and promoting overall well-being.
  5. Social support: Building supportive relationships with family members, friends, or trusted adults offers teens emotional validation, encouragement, and practical support during difficult times.
  6. Self-care practices: Encouraging teens to engage in activities they enjoy, practice self-compassion, and set boundaries with others to prioritize their mental and emotional health.
  7. Professional help: Seeking support from mental health professionals, such as therapists, counselors, or psychiatrists, does provide teens with personalized treatment and interventions to address emotional dysregulation and any underlying mental health issues.

How Do You Treat Emotional Dysregulation?

Treatment for emotional dysregulation in teens is multifaceted, involving a combination of therapeutic interventions and environmental alterations. Some effective approaches include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
  • Medications for co-occurring mental health disorders (e.g., ADHD, anxiety, depression, PTSD)
  • Mindfulness practices
  • Family therapy
  • Residential treatment centers for severe cases

Therapists also teach coping techniques such as:

  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Writing down positive affirmations
  • Creating a cool-down area
  • Bubble breath with forced exhalation
  • Positive self-talk/affirmations
  • Wearable fidgets
  • Acting like a GPS (re-centering non-judgmentally)
  • Time-apart method to redirect emotions and resolve conflicts amicably

It is essential to seek help from a mental health professional if emotional dysregulation is causing substantial difficulties in a teen’s life.

Can Emotional Dysregulation Lead to Anxiety in Teenagers?

Emotional dysregulation can contribute to the development or exacerbation of anxiety in teenagers. When teenagers struggle to regulate their emotions, it can lead to heightened levels of stress, frustration, and discomfort, which in turn can increase the risk of developing anxiety disorders. Here’s how emotional dysregulation can contribute to anxiety in teenagers:

  1. Heightened Stress Response: Emotional dysregulation can lead to an exaggerated stress response to various situations, even those that may not typically be considered stressful. This constant activation of the body’s stress response system can contribute to the development of anxiety symptoms.
  2. Difficulty Coping with Uncertainty: Teenagers who experience emotional dysregulation may find it challenging to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity in their lives. This difficulty coping with uncertainty can fuel worry and apprehension, common features of anxiety disorders.
  3. Negative Thinking Patterns: Emotional dysregulation is often associated with negative thinking patterns, such as catastrophizing, overgeneralization, and rumination. These cognitive patterns can contribute to the development of anxiety by amplifying worries and fears about potential future events.

Does emotional dysregulation in teens improve with age?

Emotional regulation skills typically develop with age and maturity, however, some teens do continue to struggle with emotional dysregulation into adulthood, especially if underlying mental health conditions are present. Early intervention and effective treatment ameliorate outcomes and teens develop healthier coping mechanisms over time.

How do parents differentiate between typical teenage moodiness and emotional dysregulation?

Typical teenage moodiness often involves occasional mood swings and temporary changes in behavior, while emotional dysregulation is characterized by frequent and intense emotional outbursts that notably impact daily functioning. Parents differentiate by observing the duration, frequency, and severity of emotional reactions and seeking professional guidance if concerned.

Author: Shantel Sullivan Ed.D., LCSW
Dr. Shantel Sullivan, Ed.D., LCSW, serves as the CEO of Bright Path with a rich background in residential adolescent treatment, adult outpatient services, and academia, leveraging over a decade of licensed social work experience in New York and North Carolina. Her academic credentials include a BA in Sociology, an MSW and a graduate certificate in addictions counseling from the University of New England, culminating in a doctoral degree in Educational Leadership focused on transformational leadership. Beyond her clinical expertise, Dr. Sullivan contributes to the field as a national speaker, educator, and editor of the Bright Path Teen Mental Health Blog, committed to enhancing access to evidence-based mental health care for adolescents and their families.
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