Managing Emotionally Intense Interactions

For many teens, handling the emotions of growing up and dealing with everyday life can be difficult. Emotions are confusing and often conflicts arise from a lack of understanding and awareness of these emotions. RedCliff Ascent seeks to educate students on the proper recognition and then handling of the many feelings they are experiencing. As a parent, it’s sometimes hard to know how to help. It can feel like you are doing everything you know how to do, but nothing seems to be working. We want to teach you the right tools and practices to be an active, helpful motivator in your teen’s life.

Unhealthy Emotional Expression and Manipulation

Some students deal with strong emotions in unhealthy and unproductive ways. During arguments teens and adults both can use damaging behaviors on the path to resolution. Such behaviors as name-calling, shaming, bringing up past events, keeping score, denying the problem, and placing blame can cause strain to the parent-child relationship. Teens will also use the emotionally charged atmosphere to manipulate family members to get what they want. The goal isn’t to bury arguments and pretend problems aren’t happening. We want parents and students to understand the proper boundaries and the correct ways to deal with conflicts that can and will arise. Teens need to have space to feel their feelings and work through them without damaging parental relationships.


Tools For Helping Parents to Manage Emotionally Intense Interactions

There are different tactics you as the parent can employ to help your teen to manage their feelings and work through their emotions. We’ve come up with an arsenal of the best ways for you to provide the proper environment and the best situations in which your teen can feel safe to express themselves.

Aware and Not Reactive

As a parent, you feel a responsibility to be the solution to a problem. You bandaged scraped knees and kissed away tears when your teen was younger, but complicated emotions aren’t that simple, nor will they have a clean solution. When a conflict arises, you need to ask “is there an immediate threat to life or safety?” If not, the situation requires a response, but not a reaction. It’s important to take the time to pause, gather information, and listen. By being responsive, you are taking in an awareness of the situation, a practice that actually gives much better solutions than a mere reaction. 

Effective Listener

Responsiveness can happen if and when you become an active listener. As an active listener, you should be doing things to keep yourself actively engaged in the conversation: Demonstrate that you are listening to what they have to say. Remember that you are listening for the other person and not just to provide your own input. Validate your teen so they know that you really care about what they are saying; acknowledge that you understand. If you take a second to ask yourself “what can keep me in tune and in touch with what my teen is saying?” and really follow through with those answers, you will see a greater change come over the conversations you have with them. Notice the tone, the candor, the emotions of your teen. As an active listener, find anchor points that help you to understand what is important to your teen. Too often as humans, we participate in inactive listening tactics such as selective listening (only hearing what we want), defensive listening (only hearing to then provide an answering argument), or insulated listening (avoiding topics the other person is speaking of). Healthy communication starts with eliminating these types of listening and working toward being an active listener. 

Set Limits

Setting boundaries around conflict needs to happen before conflict occurs when both parties are emotionally regulated. Conversations, which can be beneficial and effective for resolutions, stop being effective when emotional boundaries are crossed. When you and your teen are both in a good place, setting limits for conversations/arguments that you both agree on will help foster future resolutions. When aggression or someone’s safety is in concern and arguments continue to occur, the potential for resolution is very low. If you and your teen can work toward emotion regulation, the potential for effective conflict resolution increases drastically. 

Pause and Breathe

Sometimes the best option is to just take a second. Pause and breathe. 

Effective Validator

When your teen tells you something, barring some sort of emotion, it’s imperative that you become an effective validator for their emotions. As a loving parent, honoring not only what your teen is saying, but the feelings and emotions behind it and the experiences that come as a result of those feelings is crucial to their healthy development. An effective validator will acknowledge and confirm that experience, allowing your teen the opportunity to move forward and begin the healing process. 

Label Emotions

Emotions can be big scary things and can be hard to identify for teens. As a parent, it’s important to communicate that sometimes the thing in an argument that needs to be acknowledged is the emotion behind an experience. The details of the story aren’t as important as the impact of the experience, and the potential emotions it brings. Being able to clarify the conversation helps to focus the meaning of the experience your teen is going through. By helping your teen to label the emotions they are going through, it helps to identify the argument for the listener and the speaker and provides a better understanding for both parties. Labeling the emotions can help your teen process their experiences. 

Responsibility Where it Belongs

During arguments, it’s hard not to try and pass the blame completely on the other party, but it’s necessary to recognize, even as a parent dealing with your own child, that conflict is rarely black and white. It’s important to understand and ask yourself “what portion of this blame am I accountable for?” It’s easier to look at other’s faults than it is to look at your own, but in order to be an advocate for your teen’s emotional growth, you as the parent need to take stock of the situation and communicate to your teen the blame that you are accountable for. We like to say “clean up your side of the street first.” When one party is able to accept blame for their own faults, it becomes easier for the other party to do the same. A higher degree of resolution will be achieved when you and your teen are able to hold each other accountable for your own actions.

Time to Teach

There is a time to teach your teen, but it is not at the height of the conflict. As humans, our cognitive brains are able to process new information when we are emotionally regulated. During the conflict, once we are out of our window of tolerance, our cognitive brains go offline and we enter into the “fight, flight, freeze, or appease” mode. If our brains are no longer functioning cognitively, we are incapable of learning new information. So what does this mean for parents? You like to teach your kids, and often those lessons need to happen because of conflict, but when your teen is dysregulated, their brains cannot process new information. Once all parties are emotionally regulated, THAT is the time to teach. 

How to treat emotional dysregulation

Emotionally intense interactions and conflict are not bad. Those interactions and feelings can be healthy and instructive. Often these interactions are good indicators of what teens care about most in life and can help our team determine the proper therapeutic plan. Redcliff Ascent helps students by providing healthy ways to manage their conflicts. Our program allows for freedom for teens to feel and emote; there is no bottling it up. Conflict resolution happens in real time. Redcliff Ascent acknowledges that emotionally intense, conflict confrontation is not negative, but more about how we manage it.

Skill Development

RedCliff Ascent wants to provide your teen with their own toolbox for success. Just like the tools we provided you to help manage your teen’s emotions, we arm students with the necessary skills to learn to handle their own problems and emotions. These skills will serve them and their future relationships. 


Some people were taught how to self-soothe when they were very young while others might have had parents do the soothing. RedCliff Ascent understands that self-soothing comes in many forms and is different for everyone. We work with each student and figure out what works for them, finding the tools or things that help calm them. Whether teens are hypermanic  (elevated nervous system, aggression, anxiety)  or hypomanic (nervous system is downgraded, depression, low), we help them find what works for them. When teens can’t handle the stressors of a situation their bodies tend to go one way or the other, so the goal of self-soothing is to help students get back to the center.  We teach them how to get back to an emotionally regulated place

Manage Frustration

RedCliff Ascent uses a unique group environment. This helps teens watch their behaviors reflected in a peer dynamic. Students have peer support, mentor support, and other adult and authority figures like our therapists. Weekly therapy along with different degrees of support offer different perspectives, advantages, and education for our students. Because of this environment, we give teens the space to be frustrated, and we deal with emotional experiences in real time, as they come. We give them the tools and the time and space to process their emotions in a healthy way.

Identity Emotions

When teens come to RedCliff Ascent we feel it’s important to meet them where they are at. We practice emotional identification through various forms including the emotion wheel, that helps teens engage visually with their emotions, and through “I feel” statements that helps teens focus their feelings. Teaching them how to identify and express emotions through conversation, helps foster healthy communication and conflict resolution.  By placing feelings on the forefront, it teaches students to put the proper focus on it themselves, providing a chance for them to work through their emotions and come out the other side able to manage upcoming emotional experiences.

Delay Gratification

Nature is a wonderful tool to teach delayed gratification. RedCliff Ascent provides opportunities and teachable moments around mindfulness like meditation, mindful eating, mindful hiking, and mindful communication; each experience is individualized. Your teens are surrounded by a society that prides itself on instant gratification. In the wilderness, there is no access to the outside world. This slow down allows our students to move past those everyday wants while still finding joy. Teens will still have those feelings, but they learn to move past them and learn to experience the other side of not gratifying those impulses. It teaches students to recognize that they can still be okay when they don’t act on impulses.

RedCliff Ascent Teaches Teens Teens the Skills They Need to Thrive

At RedCliff Ascent we aim to do more than traditional therapy. We teach teens pathways to solutions for lasting change. We provide a foundation for healthy emotional management by teaching them what emotions are, how they work, and why we have them. By providing this foundation for emotional management, they also learn how to cope with and work through their emotions. The wilderness environment is the perfect tool to teach emotional regulation because it allows for the proper space for big emotions; the wilderness is big enough to hold your teen AND their emotions. In the past, your teens’ emotions have been seen as a problem, but here they get to feel without judgement or criticism and instead with understanding and a means to properly work through them. We feel that people need to be able to have those emotions and a place to move through them. RedCliff Ascent provides that space where others can’t. We are big enough to hold your teen and through dedication and love, they come to understand themselves and work towards healing.

About the Author

Steven DeMille, Ph.D, LCMHC | Executive Director at RedCliff Ascent, a wilderness therapy program for teens ages 13-17

Steven DeMille, Ph.D. LCMHC


Steven DeMille is the Executive Director of RedCliff Ascent. He is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. His educational experience includes an MA in Mental Health Counseling and a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision. His research focus is on wilderness therapy, nature, adolescent development, and counseling ethics. He is actively involved in the counseling and psychology profession and holds regional and national leadership positions. He publishes and presents on wilderness therapy and the use of the outdoors. This is done around the world at the national and international conference levels.