The Emotional Lives of Teenagers
Adolescent Emotion 101: Getting Past Three Big Myths
“Dr. D,” the text read, “can I come c you sometime this week? Tom.” I didn’t recognize the phone number it was coming from and had no one named Tom on my weekly practice schedule. As I stared curiously at my phone, three dots materialized, followed by a message that seemed to come from a mind reader: “It’s me Tommy—I got your number from my mom.”
Tommy! Of course. I immediately remembered a sweet nine-year-old I’d first laid eyes on in my waiting room years earlier. When we met, he was standing anxiously next to his mother as she sat with one hand resting calmly in her lap and the other gently stroking her son’s back. Any progress she’d made in trying to ease his nerves evaporated when I opened the waiting room door. Tommy took me in with wide-eyed dread. His dark hair stood up on one side—bedhead that had impressively survived an entire school day—seeming to underscore his overall sense of alarm. On the phone, Tommy’s mother had explained that he was having nighttime fears that were keeping him and the rest of the family up late. At my office, Tommy and his mom followed me to my consulting room, and there we slowly began what would grow into a long and fruitful working relationship.
Tommy was born tense. As a baby he startled easily and went on to have enormous difficulty separating from his parents when it was time to go to preschool. His worries morphed over the years into nighttime fears, which thankfully yielded to my efforts to be helpful and his parents’ steady support. After those fears were resolved, nearly two years passed before I heard from his folks again. In the summer after seventh grade, Tommy bravely tried going to sleepaway camp but within two days was begging to come home. I had a few calls with Tommy at camp and several with his parents, and I also consulted by phone with the camp director. Together, we decided to pull the plug, with the hope of trying camp again the next year. Tommy met with me throughout that summer, both to address the anxiety that brought him home and to process his feelings of frustration and humiliation around being unable to stay.
Remembering all of this as I looked at my phone, I realized that nearly four years had gone by since I’d last heard from Tommy—now Tom—or his parents, which would make him a high school senior. We set up a time to meet and I prepared myself for the likelihood that I’d hardly recognize the person in my waiting room. Sure enough, Tom was now tall and broad-shouldered. He was wearing long, loose shorts that were poorly suited to the chilly late-October temperatures in the suburbs of Greater Cleveland. At once awkward and friendly, he greeted me with a deep voice that I didn’t recognize.
After we settled into my office and caught up briefly, he turned to the reason for his text.
“I’m working on my college applications and don’t want to apply too far from home. I’m okay with this, and my parents are too, but my college counselor is kinda making a thing of it.”
Tom was at the top of his class, thanks, no doubt, to the fact that his anxious temperament also made him a highly conscientious student. He was a sought-after cross-country runner and had also developed into an accomplished oboist. Despite the many ways he had matured, Tom explained that although he had hoped to attend a five-week intensive music program in Michigan the previous summer, he could not bring himself to go. Based on that experience, he decided to apply only to colleges within a three-hour drive of home.
Northeast Ohio has no shortage of excellent colleges and universities, but the college counselor at Tom’s school still felt that Tom was limiting his opportunities. I wasn’t sure what to think. From the gray couch in my office, Tom shared his reasoning with me. If he started to feel nervous or unsure when he was away at college, Tom wanted to be able to come home for a night or two without its being a big deal. He was sending applications to seven very fine area schools—he would certainly have excellent options when the admissions decisions came in. And he wasn’t applying to any college within thirty minutes of his house, because he really did want to feel that he’d gone away to school.
“I still get super anxious,” Tom said. “It’s better than it was, for sure, but I’ve never liked being away from my family. I’m just trying to come up with a solution that doesn’t leave me feeling like my anxiety could mess up my freshman year. When I explained this to my college counselor, he said: ‘Tom, your worries are clouding your thinking.’ ”
Though I knew where the counselor was coming from, I didn’t share his perspective. To me, it seemed to be grounded in an unhelpful but well-worn myth: that our feelings undermine our judgment.Myth #1: Emotion Is the Enemy of Reason
Emotions and reason were cast as competitors long before Mr. Spock, with his reasoning unsullied by emotion, was showcased as Star Trek’s model thinker. Indeed, the opposition between our thoughts and our feelings has seemed so apparent that philosophers have commented on it for ages. Plato imagined reason as a charioteer working to keep the horses of human emotion under control; René Descartes, a champion of rationality, idealized those who “are entirely masters of their passions,” while David Hume, flipping Descartes’s script, argued that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”
So how should we think about the place of emotions in decision making? Plato, Descartes, Hume—who has it right?
Probably my friend Terry does. She’s a fellow clinical psychologist who once shared a terrifically useful metaphor with me. According to Terry, when it comes to decision making, we ought to view our emotions as occupying one seat on our personal board of directors. Other spots on the board might be held by ethical considerations, our personal ambitions, our obligations to others, financial or logistical constraints, and so on. Ideally, these board members will work together to help us make careful, informed choices about how we conduct our lives. In this metaphor, emotions have a vote, though it’s rarely a deciding one. And they definitely don’t chair the board.
Terry’s take finds support in psychological research. Studies show that, under the right conditions, our feelings can in fact improve the quality of our decision making. To examine how emotions influence reasoning, the psychologist Isabelle Blanchette asked British war veterans to solve logic problems on three different topics. One subset of the topics was combat-related (e.g., “Some chemical weapons are used in wars. All things used in wars are dangerous. Therefore, some chemical weapons are dangerous”); a second was emotionally loaded but not combatrelated (e.g., “Some cancers are hereditary . . .”); and the third was emotionally neutral (e.g., “Some teas are natural substances . . .”). The fascinating result? The veterans reasoned most soundly when given logic problems related to combat. Their emotional investment in war-related topics seemed to bolster their ability to make accurate deductions.
Blanchette’s war veteran study included a further wrinkle that sheds light on the interaction between emotion and logical thinking. In her study, half of the veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is characterized by painful, disruptive thoughts and feelings related to a past traumatic event. Blanchette found that veterans who suffered from PTSD underperformed on every category of the logic problems as compared to those who did not. Having a degree of personal investment in a topic can improve reasoning, but too much emotion creates a cognitive drag that interferes with our thinking.