Sometimes when our teens behave in ways that don’t make sense to us, we may wonder and ask ourselves, “why are they doing this?” We are usually trying to figure out the reason behind their actions so that we can correct them. However, research in neuroscience tells us that none of our choices and resulting actions are purely rational. We are emotional beings, and emotions influence every choice we make. For example, your teen may not want to go to a family gathering of elders because they are afraid of getting bored. Teens are often pulled into consuming alcohol or drugs because they are embarrassed to say no to their friends. It may not be because they are unaware of the many reasons to avoid drinking or drugs. In such a situation, the emotion of embarrassment takes over and leads your teen to do something likely to have negative consequences.
So, what are emotions? If you do a Google search, you will find a variety of definitions, some more valuable than others. The most practical interpretation is that E-motions are “the energy that moves us.” Curiosity draws you to investigate why something happened, fear moves you away from danger, and tenderness motivates you to hug your child. Without emotions, we would not be moved to do any of these and would instead be immobile. Emotions allow us to interact in life and to form relationships.
There is a logical structure to emotions that can help us understand what they are telling us and why they show up when they do. The first is that every emotion is co-creative with a story or narrative. Sometimes we call this “what we are thinking” or our belief. In other words, a particular emotion will provoke a specific story, and when that story is the focus of our thoughts, a specific and predictable emotion will be generated. The second is that every emotion has an impulse or urges us to act in a particular way. We may not act, but we can feel that our body wants to. The third is what we might call the purpose of the emotion. Emotions are continually giving us information about our experiences. Through our emotions, we know what we need, what we want, and what to avoid to remain safe. Without this information, we would not survive long.
A parent might blurt out in exasperation, “How many times have I told you not to do that?” Why doesn’t telling your teen repeatedly how to behave change anything? Because, as I said above, you and they are unique observers, and their behavior makes sense to them. Your teen’s behavior results from the emotion or emotions they are experiencing, so a more effective strategy is to address the emotion generating their behavior.