Emotion Regulation, Coping, and Decision Making: Three Linked Skills for Preventing Externalizing Problems in Adolescence

Modecki, K, Zimmer-Gembeck, M., and Guerra, N. (2017) Emotional Regulation, Coping, and Decision Making: Three linked skills for preventing externalising problems in adolescence. Child Development 88(2), p 417-426


The end game

What’s this all about?

The overall argument of this article is that young people need skills in emotional regulation, coping and good decision making to reduce externalising behaviours.

If you work with youth involved in substance use, offending or aggressive behaviours - this article argues your intervention should take a serious look at skill building in these areas.

If your program already does this - awesome! If not - read on for a compelling argument on why you should.



Emotion Regulation - Influencing the emotions we have, when we have them and how we experience and express them (p418)

Coping - Our efforts to regulate emotion, thoughts, physical feelings, behaviour and our environment in response to stressful or challenging situations

Decision-making - Our ability to consistently predict likely scenarios, consider relevent information and perspectives, and then make an effective choice.


So why are these skills important for the youth you work with?

Obviously - these skills are important for everyone, but the authors make a really good point that young people with externalising behaviours are more likely to find themselves in really really stressful situations. They seek out excitement, risk and novelty - and when they find it - they need really good skills in managing their emotions, coping with the situation and making a good choice to keep themselves (and probably others) safe. Often the young people we work with are exposed to deaths of friends, witnessing violence or getting caught up in serious offending - so they may need even better skills than their peers. The Catch-22 - they are actually less skilled than their peers.


OK then - does it work?

In short - yes!

The authors reviewed a range of programs from the Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development that are supported by randomised-control trials, which demonstrate that targeting these skills can reduce externalising behaviours. The snapshot of programs and outcomes is below:


Family Programs

Coping Power - Moderate effect over one year for boys

Family Bereavement Program - Small effect over 11 months for girls, small to mod effect six years later for all

Compas et al (2010) - Small effect over one year (parent report) and small effect over two years (self-report)


School Programs

Durlack et al. (2011) - Meta-analysis found social and emotional learning programs have small effect on conduct problems

Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS) - Small effect over a one year period, based on teacher reports

Life Skills Training - Small effect on range of externalising behaviours over one year


Anything else I should know?

Work with important adults

Also - you gotta work with the system around the child. The interventions reviewed either worked with families OR were delivered by teachers that continue to work with the children and young people daily. In both instances - adults important to the young people will continue to reinforce the strategies. Like a wise man once said “you are not a car mechanic - parents can’t drop off a kid and come back when they are fixed!” (If you want to hear more from this wise man - check it out here )

Early Intervention might work better

The programs seemed to be more effective with the primary school aged kids as their self-concept and social skills are being developed around this time … but they will probably need booster programs into adolescence as the effects reduce over time.

Consider how the skills work together

Teaching teens about “consequential thinking” might help with decision making - but it is not enough if they can’t regulate their emotion enough to think clearly in the moment, or if the risky outcome is what makes it exciting in the first place! Learning skills in emotional regulation might help young people learn other ways to get a buzz and feel good, without engaging in the risky behaviour. Or at least that’s what the authors are suggesting. They suggest that you could use experiential-learning and novel situations to engage adolescents in building these skills - but acknowledge we need more research on what is effective with this age group.


What does this mean for your practice?

You gotta build skills baby!

Building motivation to stop offending or substance abuse (such as through Motivational Interviewing) is necessary but not sufficient to change the behaviour. You also need to build their skills in emotional regulation, coping and decision making.

Ok - so you already knew that from the title. So here is a break-down of some micro-skills mentioned in the article that programs targeted - check the list and consider whether your program is addressing all of these.

Emotional Regulation

  • Emotional insight - being able to explain complex feelings in themselves and others

  • Knowing emotions change

  • Emotional recognition - being able to identify the emotions in self and others


  • Internal locus of control - believing that they have power over outcomes

  • Knowing how to avoid unnecessary stress and negative events

  • Accepting the stressor

  • Use of positive thinking

  • Use of distraction (not to be confused with avoidance)

  • Ability for cognitive re-appraisal - being able to reflect on how they interpreted a situation and see how it could be interpreted differently


  • Expectations of others behaviour - if they expect others will act aggressively, then they will be more likely to choose an aggressive response themselves

  • Attribution of others behaviour - if they always think other people are hostile (hostile attribution bias) then they will be hostile in return

Other skills that don’t fit in a nice neat category

  • Social cognitive processing - reading other people’s behaviour and understanding how they feel and why they are really acting that way.

  • Interpersonal negotiation skills


And we are done…

Comment below and let us know your thoughts. Do you agree? Or should we focus on something else with these young people?