Self-Criticism and Emotion Regulation in Adolescence
Positive and negative chain-reactions of ways to manage emotions.
Posted July 30, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Two critical goals in adolescence are independent identity and successful management of intense emotions.
- When adolescents are critical of themselves, they use ineffective ways of managing positive and negative emotions.
- Managing negative emotions by problem-solving can lead to ways of managing negative and positive emotions that can worsen mental health.
Why Adolescence Is a Stormy Time
Stress is a pervasive part of life, and we all respond to it differently. How stress is managed during adolescence greatly matters for long-term mental health. For example, we may care a lot about our grades during high school and thus beat ourselves up repeatedly when we do badly on a test we studied all night for. We may feel intense shame and sadness, to which we respond by either sulking in our room alone because we feel like a failure or watching a funny movie to distract ourselves.
Adolescence is remembered by many as a stressful part of their lives, filled with many overwhelming changes that may not have been easy to cope with. The body changes suddenly, self-consciousness and awareness of peers become heightened, emotions become more intense and volatile, and sense of identity becomes ultimately challenged (Rapee et al., 2019).
The ability to balance all these confusing factors must somehow be learned while finding a place in the world as independent adults. Many become adults unscathed, but for a large minority, adolescence is a highly vulnerable period for the emergence of disorders, such as depression and social anxiety (Kessler et al., 2005). Therefore, it is unsurprising that disorders such as depression tend to develop during adolescence, as some of these stressful changes and our responses to them can go awry (Rapee et al., 2019).
Developmental Goal 1: Development of a Positive Self-Concept
Adolescents must learn how to find one’s true sense of self. If this process is disrupted, they can become highly self-critical.
One major developmental challenge of adolescence is learning to become independent and find one’s true sense of self (Becht et al., 2016). The stressors encountered during adolescence make achieving a positive sense of self-challenging, leading to higher levels of self-criticism (Kopala-Sibley et al., 2015). A heightened level of self-criticism can increase an adolescent’s risk for many emotional disorders, including depression (Kopala-Sibley et al., 2014).
Developmental Goal 2: Independent Emotion Regulation
Adolescents must also learn how to manage their emotions independently.
While also trying to find their place in the world, adolescents must somehow achieve a second central goal–learning to manage their intense emotions by themselves. Typically up until adolescence, children largely rely on their caregivers for emotional regulation (Young et al., 2019). Managing emotions independently is made particularly difficult given that the brain region responsible for regulating emotions is still largely undergoing development (Casey et al., 2010). Deficits in emotion regulation are associated with an increased risk for emotional disorders in adolescence (Compas et al., 2017).
Deficits in managing both positive and negative mood states have important implications for adolescent emotional disorders. Some strategies or ways of emotion regulation can further increase positive affect (e.g., adolescents may savor the feeling of pride after doing well in a high school exam) or downplay the positive experience (e.g., adolescents may tell themselves, “I didn’t actually do that well”).
Self-Criticism and Emotion Regulation Interact With Each Other
Self-criticism and attempts to manage emotions can interact with one another to increase the risk for mental disorders. A research team at Yale University sought to investigate how this process can occur in adolescence.
High levels of self-criticism and emotional responses during adolescence do not occur in isolation. Using one emotion regulation strategy (e.g., distraction) can interact with other emotion regulation strategies and self-criticism to lead to other more negative emotional responses, which may further prolong our negative emotional experience.
These responses form a host of factors that can confer risk for disorders, known as risk factors. Most studies examined self-criticism and emotion regulation strategies separately–but when something stressful happens, we usually react by using several strategies.
Using Multiple Emotion Regulation Strategies
People regulate their emotions by trying multiple ways of managing their emotions instead of just one. These ways of managing emotions can interact and potentially create vicious cycles of negative emotions.
We rarely regulate our emotions with just one specific strategy; our attempt to downplay our success in a test may interact with our dwelling repeatedly on why we did not do well (rumination). Thus, our emotion regulation strategies in response to positive emotions can, in turn, interact with our other emotion regulation strategies and further perpetuate a particular emotional experience (Ford et al., 2019).
Emotion Regulation Essential Reads
This can create a vicious cycle that is particularly hard to break from and can thus increase the risk for the emergence of disorders. This dangerous cycle is especially true for adolescents, who use many different ways to regulate their emotions, which may, in turn, interact in maladaptive ways with each other and other factors as they begin to learn how to successfully manage their heightened emotional states.
Present Study: Understanding How Self-Criticism and Emotion Regulation Work Together in Adolescence
A research team at Yale University, led by Reuma Gadassi Polack, sought to investigate how self-criticism and emotion regulation strategies work together as risk factors in adolescence (Gadassi-Polack et al., 2021). A sample of 135 children and adolescents aged eight to fifteen filled out surveys every day for 21 days in which they recorded the degree to which they used each of six emotion regulation strategies as well as their levels of self-criticism.
Three emotion regulation strategies were examined in response to negative emotions: 1) problem-solving (trying to think of ways to change the situation to resolve distress, e.g., “I talked it out with someone”), 2) distraction (shifting attention to something else, e.g., “I watched a movie I enjoy” and 3) rumination (dwelling repeatedly on a negative event, e.g., “I thought ‘I am ruining everything”).
Three emotion regulation strategies were examined in response to positive emotions: 1) emotion-focused positive rumination (shifting attention to positive mood states, e.g., “Notice how you feel full of energy”), 2) self-focused positive rumination (attributing positive mood states to personal qualities, e.g., “Think ‘I am the best I can be”) and 3) dampening (downgrading the significance of an event, e.g., “Think ‘I do not deserve this”).
“Chain Reaction” Processes of Self-Criticism and Emotion Regulation
A demonstration of the analytical technique employed by the Yale research team can illustrate how self-criticism or a particular way of managing emotions can trigger other ways of managing emotions or self-criticism on the same day and subsequent days.
Particularly, the research team used an analytical tool to demonstrate how using a certain emotion regulation strategy, or self-criticism can result in “chain reaction processes” whereby other emotion regulation strategies or self-criticism are triggered within the same day or the next day.
As seen in the figure above, the blue circle, which represents the youths’ self-criticism, has a thicker green line connecting it to the red circle, representing rumination, than to the yellow circle, representing distraction. Therefore, this technique can illustrate that on days when adolescents were more self-critical, they tended to use more rumination rather than a distraction. The main takeaways from the study using this technique are summarized below.
- Youth try to manage their emotions using different strategies within a given day.
- Emotion regulation strategies that target the same type of emotion (positive or negative) tend to be used together by youth within the same day.
The study found that on days when youth used an emotion regulation strategy in response to negative emotions (e.g., rumination), they also used other emotion regulation strategies in response to negative emotions later that same day (e.g., problem-solving).
Similarly, youth who used an emotion regulation strategy in response to positive emotion (e.g., dampening) used other emotion regulation strategies in response to positive emotions later that same day (e.g., self-focused positive rumination). Overall, this finding supports that youth manage their emotions using multiple emotion regulation strategies, not just one.
Problem-Solving Can Backfire and Actually Worsen Mood
For children and young adolescents, trying to solve the problem that evokes negative emotions can actually encourage ways to manage emotions that further worsen negative moods and decrease positive moods.
Generally, problem-solving is considered an “adaptive” emotion regulation strategy in response to negative emotions or managing negative emotions that are generally associated with lower levels of psychopathological symptoms (Schäfer et al., 2017). However, this study found results that support the opposite. When youth used problem-solving in response to their negative emotions, they tended to use dampening, a strategy to downplay positive emotions.
Moreover, youth who used problem-solving to manage negative emotions tended to use rumination and dampening on the next day. Rumination and dampening are “maladaptive” emotion regulation strategies or strategies associated with higher psychological symptoms (Aldao et al., 2014). Therefore, the use of problem-solving can backfire and further increase the risk for psychopathology in adolescents by facilitating the use of rumination and dampening.
The research team has theorized some explanations for this contradictive finding about the nature of problem-solving as an emotion regulation strategy. Since problem-solving involves an increased focus on the problem, it could encourage a mindset that over attends to negative aspects of the situation. Thus, this strategy could facilitate using similar strategies that involve dwelling on the negative aspects of a situation, such as rumination and dampening.
It is also possible that problem-solving is not an effective emotion regulation strategy for children and relatively young adolescents – the participants in this study were only eight to fifteen years old. Emotion regulation strategies that involve complex cognitive skills to address problems such as problem-solving and reappraisal may be more effective for older adolescents when cognitive skills are more mature but not for younger ones.
Self-Criticism, Rumination, and Dampening: The “Dark Triad” of Risk Factors
When youth are self-critical, it can lead to ways of managing emotions that further increase negative mood states and decrease the experience of positive mood states, both on the same day and subsequent days.
The study also showed that youth who were critical of themselves tended to focus on the negative aspects of both negative and positive mood states that same day, thus engaging in dampening and rumination. Furthermore, on days following, when youth were self-critical, they tended to use more rumination and dampening. Therefore, self-criticism negatively affects psychopathology by leading to maladaptive emotion regulation strategies such as rumination and dampening.
Distraction in response to a negative mood can trigger a positive cycle
Distraction has benefits as an emotion regulation strategy beyond lessening negative mood states
An important and surprising finding is that youth who distracted themselves by focusing on positive things in response to negative emotions tended to be less self-critical that same day. Additionally, youths’ use of distraction triggered the use of emotion regulation strategies that serve to upregulate positive affect. Particularly, they tended to shift their attention to the experience of positive mood states and positive self-interpretations.
Recommendations for Managing Stress and Emotions
How children and adolescents can use these study’s findings to inform their management of stress and intense emotions
Given these study’s findings, children and adolescents can be encouraged to capitalize on the positive “chain-reaction” processes of emotion regulation and avoid the more negative interactive processes of self-criticism and emotion regulation.
Firstly, adolescents should resist being critical of themselves by focusing on positive aspects of the self and developing a positive self-concept. By practicing self-compassion and being kind to themselves during times of failure and stress, adolescents will be less vulnerable to the detrimental, triggering effects of self-criticism on negative mood states.
Additionally, adolescents should be encouraged to find multiple activities they enjoy, which could be used as a distraction from negative mood states in any context. As suggested by this study, distraction has benefits beyond lessening negative mood states by encouraging the use of strategies that can further upregulate positive mood states.
As seen from this study, every action we take as adolescents in response to our emotions has a reaction, resulting in a domino effect that can have downstream effects, possibly resulting in a disorder in adulthood. Additional research is needed to uncover this process that can confer risk for disorders, so that we can prevent this process as early as possible or prevent that first domino from falling.
- How children and adolescents respond to negative and positive emotions and stress through emotion regulation and self-criticism can interact and lead to “chain-reaction”-like processes of further emotion regulation and self-criticism.
- These “chain reactions” can be positive: distracting oneself from negative mood states can lead to increased positive mood and strategies that further upregulate positive mood, or negative: being self-critical can lead to increased negative affect and strategies that downregulate positive affect and strategies that upregulate negative mood.
- Adolescents should be encouraged to engage in activities they enjoy when experiencing negative mood states and avoid being overly self-critical in times of stress and failure.
Chelsea Uddenberg, a Yale graduate, contributed to the writing of this blog post.
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