Riding the Roller Coaster of Emotions (page 2)
NYU Child Study Center Grand Rounds, October 11, 2002
Reed Larson, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Human and Community Development
University of Illinois
What were the main issues?
1) Are adolescents more emotional than people of other ages?
2) If so, are these emotions due to life changes and stress?
3) Is emotionality (the quality of emotions) related to difficulties in school, problem behavior, and psychological maladjustment?
What are the main findings or conclusions?
Adolescents are traditionally seen as extremely emotional and out of control. Dr. Larson's studies on adolescence confirm that teenagers experience wider emotional swings than adults. In addition, his findings show that they experience more frequent negative emotions than pre-adolescents. For Dr. Larson however, these findings do not mean rebellion, emotional turmoil, and radical personality change. Adolescents encounter new experiences on a daily basis. Such unfamiliar situations often result in new and possibly intense positive and negative emotional reactions. These emotions are often not yet integrated into their experience. As time goes by and teens develop further, they are more accustomed to such variety and their reactions are no longer novel and can become less extreme.
Dr. Larson's findings are consistent across cultures, social classes, and ethnic groups. His studies included Anglo-American adolescents from the suburban working and middle class, African-American youths from low-income to middle-class families, and middle-class 8th graders from India. The frequency and range of emotions reported were similar in all these groups. The reasons for the emotions however, were sometimes different. For example, while the 8th graders in India did experience wider extremes of both positive and negative emotions than adults, the reasons given related to family and school. In the United States, the emotions related more to friends and romantic relationships.
Dr. Larson's studies show that adolescents' moods depend on whom they are with - a general pattern across cultures and ethnic groups. Friends and families evoke the most positive moods, solitude the most negative moods. One of the reasons for increased negative emotions in teenagers is a tendency to withdraw into solitude when they transition from childhood to adolescence.
Surprisingly the studies found very little relationship between puberty, average mood states and negative emotions, refuting the stereotype of the "raging hormones." Teenagers exhibited similar emotional states whether they were at a stage before, during, or after puberty, when an adolescent becomes physiologically capable of sexual reproduction. Data showed only one type of emotion strongly associated with puberty: being in love. Once past that stage, teenagers regardless of age were more likely to fall in love. This makes perfect sense considering that the capacity for reproduction is the biological evolutionary purpose of puberty.
Stress is another contributing factor to wide variations of emotional states. Dr. Larson's findings show a strong association between high stress and negative moods as children get older, suggesting that adolescents are more vulnerable to stress. For Dr. Larson, this finding is the result of the development of cognitive abilities - including abstract reasoning - during adolescence. In younger children emotions are related to the activity they are involved in at the moment - "I am happy because I am eating a pizza." Adolescence is the time when a person acquires the ability to think further than the present, envision its implication and the future, and grasp the complexity of relationships. In the long run suggests Dr. Larson, these cognitive abilities help people cope, but in the short term, they make the adolescent more vulnerable across a wider span of space and time.
Are there any practical implications?
Emotions influence behaviors, and negative emotions are associated with problem behaviors. The best adjusted teenagers are those who like to be with other people but also enjoy being alone, using solitude as a kind of strategic emotional downtime. The teenagers who are never alone and those who are alone a lot may have problems. In some cases the negative emotions that appear in adolescence are related to psychological problems and should be addressed with the help of a mental health professional before they impair the future of the adolescent.
About the Authors
Summary prepared by Annick Sullivan for the New York University Child Study Center
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About the NYU Child Study Center
The New York University Child Study Center is dedicated to increasing the awareness of child and adolescent psychiatric disorders and improving the research necessary to advance the prevention, identification, and treatment of these disorders on a national scale. The Center offers expert psychiatric services for children, adolescents, young adults, and families with emphasis on early diagnosis and intervention. The Center's mission is to bridge the gap between science and practice, integrating the finest research with patient care and state-of-the-art training utilizing the resources of the New York University School of Medicine. The Child Study Center was founded in 1997 and established as the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry within the NYU School of Medicine in 2006. For more information, please call us at (212) 263-6622 or visit us at http://www.aboutourkids.org.
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.
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