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Why expressive writing for adolescents might really work


When I was a teen, I could have used help. Arguably all teens need some sort of assistance. And why wouldn’t they (or why wouldn't you, if you are a teen reading this)? It is such a crazy time. You’re figuring out your friend group, your own identity, trying to keep up with classes, who knows what your home life is like, you’re trying to get into college, and your body and brain are also changing! A little help could be appreciated.


Help can come in different forms. It can be the people that surround you or it could be from other resources (e.g., a good book, movies). One tool we can use even with little to no guidance or money is expressive writing. I talk about the actual science of expressive writing in this week’s visual abstract and write-up.


Below I want to talk about my own opinions on why expressive writing may or may not work, according to my life experiences and other research. I hope this may give insight into the ways it may or may not also work in your own life. Here are examples for each of the outcomes from the research I have been discussing this week (8 in total).


1. Problem Behaviors

I didn’t really have what this paper considers problem behaviors (but I definitely did do #2 below). This is when teens act out. They are verbal with their aggression. They may even be physical with their aggression. So this can include screaming, yelling, pushing, punching, etc. These don’t all have to be directed toward people necessarily, but it will include these things regardless.


Expressive writing helps with this! But, why? My guess is just that externalizing is one way to cope. Expressive writing is another way to cope, which can replace these other, more violent tendencies. But, maybe someone with actual experience can say more about this one.

2. Internalizing Problems I did this a lot. My aggression was much more directed inward with no place to go. I often felt alone and that I was not accepted. Without talking about this or acting on these feelings, that can stir and cycle into depression and anxiety.

Expressive writing also helps with this. One thing about internalizing is that you aren’t necessarily aware you are doing this. Especially when you are still young. At that point, it is all you know, so you think it is normal to suffer and that you don’t want to bother other people with your issues. Well, if you expressively write, then it can be a real win-win situation; you lessen the suffering because now you have an outlet and you still don’t bother people because you are taking care of yourself.


If you are someone who internalizes, you likely also think and are at least aware that you are feeling certain things. But I imagine that the effectiveness will hinge on a few things. One major thing is how well we are able to label emotions. If you are unable, expressive writing probably won’t be as effective and may even backfire. Instead of a therapeutic effect, it may seem more like a nuisance or keep you stuck in your thought patterns rather than seeing the feelings for what they are and working through them. However, if you can label these emotions, and you feel like it is worthwhile to do so, then that can cause some change.


Having feelings welled up inside of you is overwhelming, so one thing, especially in the case of anxiety, that can help is seeing those feelings in front of you. Then you can deal with them. They are outside of you and finite rather than super intertwined with you and ever present. It also allows you to problem-solve when you can see the issues rather than continually feel them. These are some of the reasons why I think internalizing is helped through expressive writing.

3. Personal Adjustment This was 1 of 2 outcomes that were not reliably helped via expressive writing. I think this makes sense for a couple of reasons. And, actually, before I say that, I want to say, IT CAN help with personal adjustment; it just isn’t what typically happens.


One reason is because, even for adults, the effect on mental well-being can be low. Something like personal adjustment is also adjacent to well-being, and it may or may not actually be a critical piece for why expressive writing works. That is, your sense of identity or the way you cope of course influence your well-being, but expressive writing might not change these two things, but still have an effect on well-being.


Another reason is that teens may not have the right words or the enough life experience. Teenage years are filled with exploration and firsts. For someone going through that, writing to understand identity without experiencing enough of the world yet may not be fruitful. Teens also may have the right experiences, have had enough time to develop reliable coping mechanisms, and so forth, but may still not be able to label these experiences. I know I had a hard time with labeling even until last year, and I am almost 30. It’s just not something we are taught a lot of the time and without those skills, expressive writing can be more draining than fulfilling.


4. Social Adjustment One common reason for why expressive writing helps is because it reminds us that we actually really do have people that care about us. This is why, I think, it would relate to social adjustment. Especially for teens who may be feeling ostracized by society, when you can take the time to remember that there are people who love you and care for you, you’ll feel like you belong and that is what social adjustment is all about.

5. School Performance This is the second one that does not relate to expressive writing reliably. I think for the most part, it makes sense that it wouldn’t. It MAY be beneficial if expressive writing has a strong enough effect on OTHER parts of your life. For example, if you are stressed out and that stress is getting in the way of your grades, then you need to reduce stress in order to get better grades. If expressive writing reduces stress, then you may find you will receive better grades.


However, simply by expressive writing, I wouldn’t be able to learn what the hypotenuse of a triangle is or the maxima and minima of a parabola (or whatever teens are learning in school these days).

6. School Participation I think this can go hand in hand with social adjustment. If you feel more appreciated and like you belong, you can have more confidence to go to school. If you think all your teachers and peers hate you, then why would you go? Expressive writing can also help anxiety, so if you just have anxiety in general about being around people, then this intervention would also help!

7. Somatic Complaints and

8. Medical Visits

Expressive writing was literally made for somatic complaints and medical visits, so I’ll write about them together. Other reviews of this work have found that expressive writing may actually be BETTER for somatic complaints and medical visits compared to mental well-being sorts of outcomes. And yet, even though this has the most evidence in favor of it, I am the most skeptical about it. I try to imagine my own teen self and how this would work out. I had to go to the doctor often for various things in my life such as chronic headaches. Would this have stopped it? Would this have made it bearable enough so I didn’t have to keep seeing doctors? It’s hard to say, but had this been available, I hope I would have at least been able to try it. What do you think?


There was a lot packed into this study, and I hope by walking through it in this way, you can start to see where it would and wouldn't help in your own life or in your child's life.


-Alex

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