Exploring Positive and Challenging Emotions

Youth need a safe context to explore a range of emotions.

Youth who participated in the programs studied for the SEL Challenge were provided the space to experience and learn from the emotions they felt in response to situations in their lives, and about the program itself. When given the opportunity to authentically talk about their thoughts and feelings, youth were better able to understand their own emotions and emotional triggers.

This showed up in two key ways in the SEL Challenge programs:

  • Youth engage in program work and activities in which emotions occur, are expressed, and are recognized as an important and often valuable component of human experience.

  • Emotions are experienced within a shared program culture (e.g., rules, norms) structured to make emotional expression and reflection safe and supported.

For example, the youth in the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee (BGCGM) were discussing the issue of gun violence as a theme for their theatrical production, and the conversation turned to the recent news events regarding Trayvon Martin, a young, unarmed African American male who was shot and killed by a neighbor. La’Ketta Caldwell, Senior Program Manager of Social Emotional Learning, shared her observations of the interaction:

Quote markAs the discussion went on, it became clear that our African American males don’t feel safe around law enforcement. They don’t feel like they can trust them because if they move or act in a certain way it could mean their life because life on the street is tougher on the African American male. Then it came out that one of the youth’s uncles had been killed. It was emotional. Depending on how personal it is for them, it becomes a real discussion about how that issue has impacted their personal life.

The discussion became an opportunity for youth to reflect on how issues shaping their everyday lives influence their own emotions. Discussing their personal experiences of anger and fear also helped youth cultivate important moral sensibilities about social injustices.

Youth awaken to the important emotional dimensions of their experience when program norms encourage them to pay attention to their emotions and provide them with a safe space in which emotions can be expressed. These opportunities are vitally important because many youth grow up in families or attend schools in which the expression of emotions is discouraged or even punished, leading to emotional denial or stunted emotional development. Programming can be a vital space for youth to explore emotion management.

Further Reading

Join the Discussion

The difficulties youth have managing emotions can sometimes put them at odds with one another. How has your program helped youth manage emotions while mitigating peer-to-peer conflict?