This Strategy Can Help Teens Get Over a Fight

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From fights with best friends to hateful comments on anonymous apps, teens often deal with heavy, emotional experiences. As much as the adults in their lives may try, it's impossible to completely protect adolescents from the angry or upsetting situations that inevitably come with growing up. Some teens appear to handle their emotions during hard times better than others. But why? A new study shows that it all depends on how the kid looks at it.

Researchers surveyed 226 11- to 20-year-olds about a recent event that made them extremely angry, like a fight. These adolescents then reflected on their experiences and considered why they felt such anger. They told the researchers what happened and shared their feelings about the event.

The researchers were interested in how these kids distanced themselves from the situation now that they were thinking about the experience retrospectively. They asked questions like, “When you saw the fight again in your imagination a few minutes ago, how much did you feel like you were seeing it through your own eyes, versus watching the fight happen from a distance (like watching yourself in a movie)?”

Teens who compared the experience to watching themselves in a movie were less upset than those who imagined the fight through their own eyes. Adolescents who took a step back from their point of view were able to think about the experience with new insight. They were more likely to reflect and reconsider what happened in a meaningful way. 

Kids who replayed the fight from a self-immersed perspective were more likely to blame the other person involved, compared to those who distanced themselves. Overall, those who were able to see the incident with a new perspective were less emotionally distressed.

The study’s lead author, Rachel E. White, explains further:

Mentally stepping back from the event didn’t mean the youth were avoiding their problems. In fact, they were dealing with them in a more adaptive way. These results show that teens can use self-distancing strategies in much the same way as adults. They also suggest that the teen years could be critical in developing this way to regulate emotions.

Teaching teens self-distancing strategies now can help them to handle tough situations for years to come. Next time they’re feeling angry about something, ask them to step outside of their own shoes for a moment and consider what an observer would think about the situation. If they take an emotional time-out from the experience, they may be able to think about it more logically and work through the event insightfully.

For more scientifically proven strategies to help teens think differently, check out “The Science of Optimism” from our January issue of Choices.