The Emotional Landmines Our Kids Live In

Dr. Delaney Ruston – Emotions are often challenging and confusing, and it truly baffles me why we don’t spend more time in schools and homes discussing this reality with our youth. 

In filming Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER, which in part explores the science of emotions, I asked a 7-year-old girl to list all the feelings she could think of. She rattled off her list of words such as “angry,” “sad,” and then she said “bold.” Suddenly she stopped, tilted her head and looked at me inquisitively, and asked, “Is bold a feeling?” I did a double-take. Was it?  Right then and there, I was reminded of how confusing feelings are, no matter one’s age.

Feelings can be pesky annoyances all the way to fiendish liars. For example, depression can often say lead people to believe lies such as, “You are the only person who has this,” or, “You are a flawed individual, and you better not tell anyone what you are feeling, for they will surely think less of you,” and, “This is your fault, you are good for nothing, and you deserve to feel awful.” There are many more lies depression tells, and anxiety tells quite a few as well. 

Throughout my 25 years in medicine, I frequently get reminded of how people’s fear of telling others about the hard emotions they are dealing with means they do not get support and treatment. Many individuals have told me that their emotional challenges began in their teen years, but they never felt okay to talk about it with others. When someone tells me that I am the first person they have confided in about their struggles, my heart always aches, thinking about how they have had to suffer not just from the feelings but from the extra burden of feeling so alone. 

Youth have long received all sorts of messages through television shows and movies about what feelings are okay to talk about and which are not. I think about all the shows in which characters are shown displaying anger but rarely express emotions such as guilt, regret, sadness, or fear, to name just a few. 

Now, in addition to shows, there is the whole new landscape of social media. Ask any young person if they think there is a lot of filtering of emotions happening on social media apps, and they will give you an impassioned “yes” and tell you that it is not just other people who do this, but that they also partake. 

One eighth-grader  told me: 

“I remember in a time of my life where I wanted people to know that I was happy. Let me just show this to the entire world how happy I am. I would post over and over and over again until I almost believed it myself when I obviously wasn’t very happy. But I wanted to be. I wanted to be happy so bad, but I just wasn’t.”

Meanwhile, we know from research — including brain imaging studies — that all emotions, from the pleasant to the uncomfortable, are experienced at a much higher intensity in the teen years. That is why I think of this time of life as a true emotional landmine. For example, our kids might be a click away from seeing a post that feels like a huge slight and then spiral into intensely painful emotions that can last for weeks. Friends may have posted a picture without her.  Maybe she found out people talked about her in a group chat where she didn’t get included.

Here are some ideas for ways parents can help:

Discuss with your kids the concept of how emotions can lie to us

Did you, as a parent, in the past or maybe currently, have emotions that you have been hesitant to tell others because your brain has told you a story that probably is not true. For example, when you were young and feeling intensely insecure about your height, did you think that telling someone about your feelings would make you look “weak”? In fact, it would have been quite the opposite; talking about our uncomfortable emotions helps us be less pulled by them and helps us get support, including being introduced to new ways of framing a situation (in fact, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and therapy, in general, is a lot about helping people to reframe their inner stories to help them suffer less).

Discuss media and video game literacy

Talking about the ways males and females are displayed in shows regarding expectations about emotions is so important. Start with the shows and videos they watch. 

I recall how frustrated I was that my son was glued to the series “Arrow,” which is about a superhero — who, of course, never talks about feelings or shows any emotions. The whole idea of a male hero who is stoic beyond belief consumed him.

I worked to stay calm and to ask him questions about his take on the superhero and how he felt about the messages the show was sending. It was useful to ask what he thought a younger kid would learn from it. So, if Chase was 11, I might ask, “What do you think an 8-year-old might take away from the show about what it means to be a real man?” 

Media literacy also must include video games that now contribute hours of messaging to our kids and teens about emotionless males. Many people get killed in games, yet no emotions get expressed, and negative consequences do not get shown (other than perhaps losing a round). 

Discuss social media literacy

Ask your kids questions like how often they think a person’s post is in line with their true emotional life. Teens tell me often that when they are not feeling good, they purposely post photos where they look good in the hopes of getting lots of likes as a way to boost their mood. This strategy may help in some ways, but there can be downsides. 

Ideas for conversation starters:

  1. Can everyone talk about when they last experienced an emotional landmine? How did they handle it? What did they learn from it?
  2. In what ways does our screen world promote hiding true emotions?
  3. What do common messages in shows and video games convey about what and when it is appropriate for girls to express emotions? How about for boys?
  4. When was the last time you told someone about your emotions and felt it was helpful?