Helping Teens Label and Differentiate Emotions

By Michael Tompkins, PhD, ABPP

In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with teens, it’s essential that teens correctly identify and label their emotions. Most teens can easily do this. Some teens, however, show very little awareness of their emotional responses or only have an intellectual understanding of emotions, and struggle to identify and label their own emotions in the moment. Building an Emotion Chart can help teens build this capacity. An Emotion Chart lists several emotions and the situations in which the teen felt the emotion.

Therapist: Can you remember a time last week when you were feeling angry?

Rita: Sure. When I said ‘hi’ to my brother and he walked right past me for the refrigerator.

Therapist: Great. Let’s write that down in the angry column. How about another time when you were feeling angry?

Rita: Well, I sent Lucy, my best friend, a text and she didn’t text me back.

Therapist: Great. Let’s write that down in the angry column too.

Rita and the therapist then repeat this for situations in which she was feeling anxious and sad. Here’s Rita’s emotion chart.




My brother walked right by me after I said ‘hi’ to him.

My dad didn’t return my call.

Writing the essay for my history class.

Lucy ignored my text.

I got a C on the pop quiz.

Raising my hand in class.

My sister is playing music too loud.

No one asks me to hang out with them at lunch.

At the anniversary party for my mom and stepdad.

As an Action Plan, therapists ask teens to jot down in the blank spaces of the Emotion Chart other situations when they’re feeling angry, sad, or anxious over the next week. Again, most teens can easily differentiate one emotion from another and tell you what they’re feeling in particular situations. This strategy helps teens who struggle with this.

Book Titles: The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook for Teens

the relaxation and stress reduction workbook teens Michael A. Tompkins, PhD, ABPP, is codirector of the San Francisco Bay Area Center for Cognitive Therapy; assistant clinical professor at the University of California at Berkeley; and author or coauthor of numerous books, including Anxiety and Avoidance

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