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Emotional Regulation: Suicide Prevention Through a Different Lens

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Emotional regulation is the ability to manage and respond effectively to emotions, not let emotions and mood dictate behavior. This is a key component of suicide prevention. Emotional regulation is the focus of Part 2 of our three-part series. Here’s the link back to Part 1: Impulse Control  in case you missed it or just want a refresher.

Teen suicide rates are increasing, despite available prevention tools. When Brittani Senser’s own teenage daughter regrettably became part of that problem two years ago, she decided to honor her daughter’s memory and bring good out of the tragedy. She came up with the idea of “pre-prevention.”

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Part 2: Emotional regulation as pre-prevention

Emotional Regulation is the ability to manage and respond effectively to emotions. It sounds so easy, right? But for teenagers, whose brain development still ongoing, it is anything but easy. They are often experiencing intense emotions and negative impulses. They are driven to engage in risky behaviors and often lack the ability to weigh long-term consequences in the moment. That’s why suicide prevention strategies are so needed at this time of life in particular.

Emotions are natural. They help us experience our world. They influence our thoughts, behaviors, and overall mental health. How we respond to the full range of emotions determines how well we manage through difficult times. And emotional regulation is key.

Three components

  1. Initiating actions triggered by emotions: We want to teach young people not to stuff down any feelings because that only makes the feelings bigger, harder to manage. Rather, we want to give them skills to choose appropriate actions to the emotions they experience.
  2. Inhibiting actions triggered by emotions: We want to give young people the ability to inhibit negative actions such as striking out at someone - or themselves - when angry or hurt.
  3. Modulating responses triggered by emotions: Our role is to help young people understand what they are feeling, what their thoughts are, what their urges are. We want to help them identify what they feel like they want to do, and then ask themselves how they are going to respond in an appropriate way.

We can use Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT for short) tools to help young people understand their emotions. We can talk about how emotions function. We can explain the action urges that emotions may cause. And we can help young people weigh whether they should respond to or resist those urges.

  • Identify the specific emotions you’re feeling: There are 10 core emotions; anger, disgust, envy, fear, happiness, jealousy, love, sadness, shame, guilt.
  • Identify myths about emotions: Learn to check the facts; combat negative thoughts with evidence of strengths.
  • Ability to tolerate awkwardness: Learn to acknowledge the fact of the feeling and sit with it, without judging.
  • Ability to have intimate/vulnerable conversations rather than avoiding or fleeing: Learning to verbalize what got them to this emotional place is part of the problem-solving process.
  • Ability to soothe your own emotions: Teach them to identify their own strategies for self-soothing; meditation, quiet time, deep breathing, weighted blanket, visualization, a splash of water on the face, a fan.
  • Ability to delay gratification: Practice listing pros and cons before acting on emotional urges.
  • Ability to accumulate and name short-term and long-term goals: Help them plan.
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle: Balanced eating, physical activity, plenty of good sleep, supportive friends and social connections all contribute to positive mood, feelings, and behaviors. All necessary for emotional regulation.

Emotional regulation is the second of three suicide pre-prevention skills we’re focusing on in this three-part series. For more learning, check out Using Behavior Interventions to Build Self-Regulation. This training is free to YIPA members.

You can also check out Brittani’s training, Pre-prevention Tools to Improve Suicide Prevention, free to our members.

About the author

Barbara Van Deinse is the operations director of the Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA), a non-profit association of youth-serving organizations. We're your source for exceptional, affordable, personal and professional online learning via The Professional Youth Worker.  Join us!

To ask Barbara a question or share your feedback about this blog, email barbara@yipa.org.

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