Feeling machines: Healthy ways for girls to express their emotions

Kelly, 12, had her two best friends from sixth grade ditch her at the start of seventh grade. They didn’t explain why, they just stated hanging out with the more popular crowd, leaving Kelly in their dust.

Ray, 16, seees her friend group starting to hang with a wild group of guys who drink a lot and hook up with each other. She is the go-to designated driver, but is getting tired of being a third wheel and being used.

Charlotte, 15, has lived with parents who fought intensely for years before finally splitting up two years ago. They still fight over the phone and email and being an only child has only made Charlotte feel worse.

What do these three girls have in common? When asked in counseling sessions how they felt about their predicaments, not one of them could give a feeling word – only more descriptions of what was going on, such as “I felt like I didn’t know what to do," or “I felt like 'why aren’t my friends calling me anymore?'” No actual feelings.

This is a phenomenon I have noticed in pre-adolescent and adolescent girls over the past 10 years or so. They are so busy with homework and activities, in addition to hours using technologies, that there is no time to be alone and quiet in order to go inward and know what they are actually feeling. So emotions build up, then resurface as unhealthy expressions like depression, anger, anxiety or cutting. They just don’t know how to get quiet anymore, and they don’t have the skills to express emotions in beneficial ways.

In my personal growth retreats, summer camps and school programs, I have been providing safe spaces for girls to do social-emotional learning for 25 years, and they love it. They need spaces where they can share their stories, hear other girls' stories and find healthy expressions for the myriad of emotions coursing through them every day. The following are examples of what I teach girls about how to release their feelings.

  1. Journaling: Being able to sit quietly and pour your thoughts and emotions out onto the pages is an invaluable tool for girls to adopt. It is releasing, and they usually feel lighter when they have vented their feelings in a no-holds-barred manner. I also encourage girls to put their journal down, then come back to it in a day or two, read what they wrote and ask themselves questions. Do they still feel that way? How do they see the issue now after some distance from it? It becomes a way for them to process thorough problems and find solutions and gain new perspectives.
  1. Writing stories: In my retreats, I have middle or high school girls create a fictional character that is going through the same difficulties they are. Through this story, they can write about how the girl feels and how she works through the issue so that there is a happy ending. Sometimes it’s easier to write about someone else than it is about yourself. The narratives are incredible, rich with details and emotions.
  1. Poetry and songs: Channeling your emotions into a poem or song lyrics are also good ways to release and work through feelings and struggles. Some girls become pretty abstract with these works, but it works to relieve stress and pressure.
  1. Art: Artistic girls oftentimes like to draw what they are feeling, either in pictures depicting what they are going through, what they want, or more abstractly representing their emotions. It’s just another way to channel what they are feeling onto the canvas. Some adolescents like to use sculpting as a means to depict their feelings. I have had girls on my retreats use colored pipe cleaners to represent how they feel about their bodies, and it’s always illuminating.
  1. Music: Channeling your emotions by playing an instrument is a good fit for musically inclined girls. Wailing on your guitar or pouring yourself into a piano piece can leave teenagers feeling more calm and light.
  1. Exercise: Physical activities like running or hitting a punching bag are good ways to release more superficial feelings of anger and tension, but it’s not enough. Under anger and frustration there are always more important, causative feelings like sadness, hurt, disrespect, fear, disappointment, loneliness or betrayal. If girls focus on expressing these emotions in healthy ways, the anger goes away. It’s not really about the anger.
  1. Sharing: Girls need safe people they can talk with when they are upset. It’s great if it can be their parents, but if not, they need to seek out caring adults they trust to be there for them in times of need. Friends can sometimes fit the bill, but there are occasions when girls need someone with more wisdom and experience, such as a counselor, grandparent, teacher, mentor or the parent of a friend. I have met lots of girls who talk to their pets, real and stuffed, because they are good listeners and unconditional with their love.

We need to get on the ball when it comes to our daughters and their emotional lives. Girls need to learn skills to quiet themselves down and go within, have a language to describe what they are feeling, then develop healthy ways to express all of their emotions in healthy ways. They need sacred spaces where they can feel safe enough to let their hair down, be real, share their stories, and know that they are not crazy or alone with their emotional roller coaster. And girls need caring adults who are good listeners who can mirror back their thoughts and feelings and give them hope that things will indeed get better with time.

Dr. Tim Jordan is a developmental and behavioral pediatrician and author of four parenting books including his latest, "Sleeping Beauties, Awakened Women: Guiding the Transformation of Adolescent Girls." For more information or to read Dr. Jordan's blog, visit www.drtimjordan.com.

Tim Jordan M.D. © 2013