The story of emotion in teen girls

There is a book I highly recommend - "Parenting a teen who has intense emotions" by Pat Harvey & Britt H. Rathbone.  It is an EXCELLENT resource for understanding the behaviors of your daughter and covers very practical ways to address them.  They apply DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) skills to address problematic behaviors.  I believe it can help you better understanding what might be going on with her and her behavior.

DBT in general presents a model of understanding emotions that really helps explain how someone ends up behaving the way they do and through the model, gives insights that you may not have considered.  I'm going to break it down in as simple terms as possible so hopefully you can use it when trying to figure out what might be happening with your daughter.

There are 6 key components to an emotional experience and each link together.  When you can break it down and really consider each piece, her emotional experience might start to make more sense.

Vulnerability Factors (for parents and teens)

These are factors that make you or your daughter more vulnerable to emotions.  They could be a variety of things including situations and feelings that affect how you or she is going to respond emotionally. 

Common examples include physical illness/health problems, substance abuse, work stress, school stress, marital problems, financial problems, hunger, fatigue, relationship problems, general stressors, etc...  Even very positive, exciting situations can impact someone emotionally and make them more sensitive to their emotions in general.

Hunger, physical illness and fatigue are extremely common in teen girls.  Yes... hangry is a real thing and can make people VERY cranky.  Understanding vulnerability factors might be one of the most critical aspects for you to try and understand.  It can really help explain the why of a situation.

Prompting Events

This is an initial trigger.  A situation, person, thought, event or emotion that sets off a chain of events that lead up to a problem behavior.  It could be as simple as telling your daughter NO that sets off the chain.  It could be a post online made by her friend or the loss of her dog.  Honestly, there are many different factors that could set-off the chain.  Learning to manage the emotion about it is key, not avoiding it.  Often girls and parents will look to just avoid it so that her emotions chill out but that isn't always the best way to handle it.

For example, let's say her boyfriend recently broke up with her (vulnerability factor) and she hears a song (prompting event) that reminds her of him and you don't really know any of this.  She comes home and yells at you because you ask her to take out the garbage.  When you can understand (after careful discussion) that her outburst was due to the prompting event, you can educate her and be sensitive/more supportive to how emotional she may be.  It doesn't necessarily justify the outburst but it can help explain and help depersonalize it.


This is where it gets real fun.  Thoughts are often distorted and based on interpretations.  Thoughts are the internal dialogue that is going on, one you typically know nothing about. They are often very judgemental and automatic.  They reflect how she sees herself and the world.

Your daughter has an internal belief system that directs a lot of her emotion and behavior.  If its critical, negative and just plain 'ol mean it's going to have a serious effect on her emotional experience.  What's worse is you often have no clue what her internal dialogue is so you don't realize how she is interpreting what is happening in her life including her responses to you. Remember, parents do the same thing to their daughters.  We all are subject to this process.  We make just as many assumptions as girls do.

For example, you might be reacting to her tone, assuming she is intentionally being disrespectful but she is actually "hearing" you as angry and critical of her so she is attempting to protect herself and explain.  Lots of misinterpretations can start to blow up a tiny situation into something gigantic if everyone just starts assuming and reacting.

Body Sensations

When she thinks, she feels and it always triggers body sensations.  Different emotions trigger different sensations.  Teens bodies are continuing to grow and because many emotions have similar body sensations, they are not skilled enough to identify them without a lot of coaching. 

For example, anxiety has many body sensations and it's important to know them because often she gets more anxiety as a response to how her body is reacting.  She may have a chronic disturbing thought (which can happen with OCD) and when she has this thought it creates anxiety (heart rate, tension, stomach pains), she can then react to those sensations making the anxiety 10x worse.  This creates an overall heightened emotional state.


If she lacks the ability to identify and verbalize a variety of emotions, expect problem behaviors.  If she is limited, she isn't going to know that she is upset, angry, jealous, embarrassed, etc...  She may end up just feeling anxious.  She needs to know a full range of emotions to improve her emotional experience and reduce problematic behaviors as a response to the emotions.

For example, she feels anxiety and she can verbalize that but what she can't verbalize is the grief she is feeling from the loss of her favorite aunt (vulnerability factor).  She begins to drink alcohol (problem behavior) to ease the anxiety but never tunes in and deals with the grief.  If she can learn to understand the grief and deal with it, she will most likely stop the drinking.


This is what brings you to a place of frustration.  It's her behaviors that tend to cause parents to take note.  Her behavior is a direct result of all we just discussed... many factors.  It's not as simple as we tend to want to believe.  It's definitely not black and white which many people assume.  This is why the idea of "just stop it" doesn't actually work.  There are way too many components to how she behaves.

Let's put it all together... for example, you bust your daughter on her phone when she is grounded from it due to her F in history. You yell, she yells and it ends with everyone frustrated and isolated (behaviors).  You had a long day at work and your mother fell (vulnerability factors).  Your daughter has a learning disability and has been out with the flu for the last week so she is behind at school (all vulnerability factors). She sees herself as a loser and is very critical of herself because she has to take "regular" classes (thoughts).  This generates a lot of shame, embarrassment and anxiety (emotions).  You are thinking "why does she do this to me when she knows I have a lot to manage with mom in the hospital" (thoughts). This generates anger and frustration for you (emotions).  What you don't know is that upon returning to school she finds out the guy she is crushing on has posted a picture of he and a girl she dislikes on Instagram (prompting event). She just needed to see it for herself (thoughts).  She feels anxiety and feels sick to her stomach (emotions and body sensations).  She freaks and grabs the phone to check it out.

As you can see, it's not so simple.  There is a lot going on for everyone.  Does this mean you have to analyze every single experience... no... but when something comes up that causes you to truly pause and try and understand "how did we get here?", this is a great way to assess.

As a teen her brain is still in major development, especially the control center of the brain.  What is so great about this model is you can help her understand what is happening and it can help her learn more about herself, slow down and respond better.  It also helps parents understand themselves and why they are reacting they way they do.