Teenage (emotional) wasteland: Adolescents have hardest time recognizing negative emotions

WASHINGTON — Teenagers and adolescents often deal with emotional issues. Adolescence is a time filled with awkward moments for young people, from physical changes to all of the social challenges of high school. Interestingly, a new study by Harvard researchers sheds some additional light on why adolescents have such a tough time emotionally during this time period: it is actually harder for adolescents to recognize and process negative emotions compared to both younger children and adults in their 20s.

The research shows how we experience emotions differently at different ages and how vulnerable adolescents can be in their emotional development.

“We found a pretty interesting developmental trajectory when it comes to emotion differentiation,” explains first author and Harvard psychological scientist Erik Nook in a statement. “Children tend to report feeling only one emotion at a time, producing differentiated but sparse emotional experiences. Adolescents begin to co-experience emotions but they are not well differentiated, and adults both co-experience and differentiate emotions.”

The researchers studied 143 participants between the ages of five and 25. Participants completed a number of emotion-related tasks, and each participant was asked to define 27 different emotional terms. The researchers took five of those terms: angry, disgusted, sad, scared, and upset, and used them in a followup emotional differentiation task.

For this task, participants viewed a series of 20 images depicting a negative scene, then indicated how much they themselves were feeling each of the five negative emotions when looking at each image. They rated each emotion felt on a sliding bar between 0 (not at all) to 100.

Children actually displayed higher emotional differentiation than adolescents, but they also showed a propensity to experience only one emotion at a time. Adults, on the other hand, were better than adolescents at differentiating between negative emotions, and were able to experience several emotions at once.

Adolescents were found to be more likely to report several highly-correlated emotions simultaneously, leading to an overall lack of clarity on what emotion they are feeling at any given time.

“Adolescence is a period of heightened risk for the onset of psychopathology, and now we know that this is also a period when there’s less clarity in what one is feeling — something that lots of work has already connected to mental illness,” Nook says. “We need to do a lot more work to draw a firm link between these two things, but it’s possible that increases in co-experienced emotions [make] it more difficult for teens to differentiate and regulate their emotions, potentially contributing to risk of mental illness.”

The study is published in the journal Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

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Ben Renner

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