Why are they so infuriatingly wonderful? So wonderfully infuriating?
Researchers have offered an intriguing suggestion:
Children can tell you what they’re feeling with confidence. They believe they can experience only one emotion at a time, and so they label it with certainty.
Adults can also tell you what they’re feeling with confidence. They know they can experience many emotions at once, and they have lots of experience figuring out the combination that they feel right now.
Adolescents — sometimes — don’t really know what they’re feeling. Like adults, they know they can experience many emotions. But unlike adults, they don’t yet have much experience describing combinations. And so, unlike children, they’re uncertain what they’re feeling.
We’ve blogged about this research here.
Individual Differences Matter
So, adolescents don’t distinguish among complex emotions as well as adults do.
Of course: individual teens develop along different paths. Some differentiate among emotions better than others.
Researchers at Emory wanted to know: do those differences have meaningful effects?
In particular, they asked this intricate question: does a teen’s ability to distinguish among negative emotions have an effect on their experience of depression?
In other words: do the hassles and stresses of life lead to depression more often among teens who distinguish among negative emotions less skillfully?
To answer this question, Dr. Lisa Starr and her team interviewed 225+ teens, and then had them fill out online diaries for several days. They then followed up with those teens up to a year-and-a-half later.
In other words, they got LOTS of data spread out over LONG periods of time.
Given all the variables at play, it’s not surprising that the results here are complex: probably too complex to explore in detail. (Click the link if you want the nitty-gritty.)
But the headline is clear: teens who distinguish among negative emotions effectively can manage life stress better than those who don’t.
To say that the other way around: teens who struggle to distinguish among negative emotions are likelier to experience depression as result of life’s hassles and stresses.
What Can We Do?
Students benefit from skill in distinguishing among negative emotions. In fact, those who lack those skills face a higher chance of depression.
So: what can we do to promote those skills?
I’ve asked lead researcher Dr. Starr that question. She pointed me to this study, which suggests that mindfulness training might have some benefits.
That suggestion lines up with this recent meta-analysis, showing that mindfulness can indeed help people manage depression.
Of course: we shouldn’t rely too heavily on just one study. I hope this question leads to greater exploration soon.
Given the scary numbers about adolescent depression, we should do all we can to manage this problem.