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Talking Helps: Describing Negative Emotions Can Protect Teens Against Depression

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Parenting can be a rollercoaster ride. During the early years, kids talk your ear off from the moment they wake up until the moment they go to bed. This nonstop commentary and sharing typically happens through middle school. Then during the teen years, they shift their attention. They talk to their peers and often cut their parents out of the loop.

We’re generalizing, of course: some teens keep talking to their parents.

What’s ironic for parents is that when their kids reach adolescence, they know their kids need them as much – or even more –  than they did when they were little.

But that’s exactly when some teens stop talking.

A new study conducted by scientists at the University of Rochester in New York shows this could cause problems – especially if they stop talking about hard things, problems, and the negative emotions they may be experiencing.

NED: What is It?

Negative Emotional Differentiation.

As it turns out, NED skills are important.

NED is the ability to describe uncomfortable, disturbing, or painful emotions – all the negative ones – in specific detail, above and beyond phrases like “I’m sad,” or “I feel bad.” According to the lead author of the study, Lisa Starr, quoted in a recent article in Science Daily:

“Adolescents who use more granular terms such as ‘I feel annoyed’ or ‘I feel frustrated’ instead of simply saying ‘I feel bad’ are better protected against developing increased depressive symptoms after experiencing a stressful life event.”

To arrive at this conclusion, the research team set up an interesting experiment. They recruited 233 teenagers – average age 16 – and screened them for pre-existing depression. Then, they had the recruits describe their emotions four times a day for seven consecutive days. These descriptions formed their baseline of the teen’s NED skills. Next, they interviewed the recruits a year and a half later to assess the relationship of their NED skills to stressful events in their lives. Particularly, they looked at the effect these skills had on how they reacted to stressful events. They also tracked whether these events led to depression.

They found that teens with low NED skills were more likely to:

  1. Allow daily hassles and stress to cause a temporarily depressed mood.
  2. Develop depression in response to stressful life events.
  3. Allow stressful life events to increase levels of depression.

In contrast, teens with high NED skills were more likely to cope productively with stress. They were more able to manage their emotions and behavior in response to stressful events. Researchers indicate that these results suggest high NED skills in teens may decrease the chances of developing clinical depression later in life after experiencing stressful events during adolescence.

Talking Helps: Being Specific Helps More

It’s common sense that talking about your emotions is helpful. Particularly the tough ones. It’s far better than keeping them bottled up inside. What this research shows is that while talking about and being able to describe negative emotions is helpful, the ability to describe them with nuance and detail helps more than simply being able to identify them as negative or uncomfortable.

Quoted later in the Science Daily article, Starr makes her takeaway from the study plain:

“Basically, you need to know they way you feel, in order to change the way you feel. Our data suggests that if you are able to increase people’s NED, then you should be able to buffer them against stressful experiences and the depressogenic effects of stress.”

For parents of teens who experience stress – which really means all parents of all teens, because everyone experiences stress – the instinct to get teenagers to talk about what’s going on with them is a good one. And the instinct to get them to open up beyond one- or two-word answers is even better. That’s parental instinct predicting what scientific research confirms. The ability to accurately describe negative emotions, as difficult as it may be in the moment, increases the likelihood that those emotions won’t turn into stumbling blocks in the years to come.

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