Focus Area 6: Behavioral Intervention
1. The Connection Between Emotions and Behaviors

Emotions are useful. They help us experience the wonderful joy and happiness that life offers. Emotions can also make us feel down and depressed by life’s difficulties.

Emotions are the basis for humanity and they help us understand how we are perceiving and responding to external factors. Emotions are like alerts about how things are internally.

In fact, emotions are essential to giving a young person information about what they need and helping them identify what is important. In that regard, emotions:

  • Provide young people with useful information about themselves, others, and the problems they face
  • Motivate most of their actions
  • Can improve or help their interpersonal relationships

But what happens when a young person’s emotions heat up and become intense? It’s like a wild fire that can quickly flare up and become overwhelming. When emotions heat up quickly, it is nearly impossible for youth to make good decisions or solve problems. In fact, it becomes difficult for them to take in any new information at all. When emotions heat up:

  • Youth can become blind to their role in the problem
  • Their motives degrade or completely change
  • The choices you present to them become more difficult to make, despite how obvious they may seem to you

Emotions impact behaviors, so helping young people understand how their emotions can take over their ability to make good choices and process information is a life skill you can teach them. Your guidance will help them draw the connection between how they are feeling and how their feelings may impact their behaviors. The converse is equally important to learn; their behaviors may impact their feelings.

So, you can already see how important it is for you to learn to manage your own emotions when working with youth. You can’t change others, but you can change your own response to their behaviors. If you try to change others, you will likely be very frustrated and not be a youth worker for very long. It is easier to initiate change within yourself. You know yourself and have access to your emotions.

What is interesting is that emotions are contagious. You can have an impact on an interaction with someone else by changing your own emotions.

Although this video by Daniel Goleman is delivered in the context of leadership and employee engagement, the underlying lessons about how emotions work will help you better understand the impact of emotions and how your emotions can impact the youth you serve.

View video: The Art of Managing Emotions (run time 8:45 minutes) 

The video begins with some basics about emotions and then moves into the discussion about mirror neurons. This explains how and why your emotions affect the emotions of the youth you serve. It’s pretty cool – see for yourself…


It’s important that you understand the difference between primary and secondary emotions. Remember that having emotions is natural; they’re a good thing and they are what makes our human experience so rich.

The difficulties arise when we don’t make good choices about how to respond to our strong emotional feelings. This is especially true for young people who just don’t have much experience yet in how to handle their emotions.

A primary emotion is the response a young person has to what is occurring. These emotions just happen and don’t require thinking. Think of primary emotions as automatic and instantaneous.

A good example would be when a young person wins a game; they will likely have a primary emotion of satisfaction or happiness. The same is true for negative events in life as well. For example, when a young person finds out their parents are divorcing  they may have a primary emotion of sadness or fear.

Secondary emotions are emotional reactions to a primary emotion. Here’s a simple example to illustrate the point:

Let’s say a youth in your program became angry (primary emotion) with you because you gave them a direction. They responded to you angrily, showing their frustration. But shortly afterwards, with a little time and distance from the immediate interaction, they began to think about the things they said to you and how they said them when angry, and that reflection brought up a different emotional response, maybe they feel bad or guilty now (secondary emotion).

What makes secondary emotions potentially problematic is that they tend to pile up on top of each other, increasing the likelihood of a young person’s inability to cope. Consider this more complex example:

A youth is about to get a visit from a parent they haven’t seen for two years and they feel nervous (primary emotion). As they wait for the visit to occur, they begin thinking about the circumstances of not seeing their parent and eventually start feeling worthless (secondary emotion). When they feel worthless it leads to them also feeling depressed (secondary emotion) about the situation and angry (secondary emotion) that it is happening to them.

This example outlines how quickly emotions can get the best of the young people you work with. Often the primary emotion is lost in all the secondary emotions that take over. So, experiencing many emotions at once becomes very difficult to manage and youth can become stuck in a negative cycle that continues or reinforces negative behaviors.

Helping youth understand primary and secondary emotions will help them develop skills immediately and throughout their lifetime. Without proper emotional management, youth can quickly move into dysregulation. What does that mean? Let’s explore so you understand how it greatly affects your work.

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