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ACT skills for teenagers

Adolescence is a time of enormous change. Perhaps the most obvious changes are the physical changes associated with growth and the development of adult physical characteristics. However, profound psychological changes are also occurring throughout adolescence. More advanced cognitive skills are developing, leading to increased capacity in areas such as planning, organising behaviour, problem solving and supressing urges toward impulsive behaviour. These changes are associated with greater autonomy, stronger identity, and an increased capacity to self-reflect and experience empathy for others. Significant social changes relate to the increased importance of close relationships outside the immediate family. This exciting period of rapid change often results in emotional experiences which fluctuate rapidly, and which are more intense than those previously experienced.   

The BOLD skill for teenagers

How can we help a teenager deal with these emotional experiences? Louise Hayes is a clinical psychologist working at the Orygen Youth Research Centre at the University of

Melbourne, and an expert in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) for young people. In her self-help book for teenagers, Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life for Teens, Louise describes a set of skills to help young people deal with fears, doubts and intense emotions. This skill set includes four groups of skills, which are identified by the acronym BOLD.

B is for breathing deeply and slowing down. Here teenagers learn to mindfully notice their breath flowing in and out, and to use this experience as a sort of anchor when their emotions feel like a storm at sea, surrounding them with powerful winds and strong waves. This form of present-moment-focus, or simple mindfulness, is a valuable skill for all.

O is for observing. This involves developing the capacity to notice ongoing thoughts and physical sensations (feelings), and, in addition, to notice any urges to fight with or struggle to control these thoughts and feelings. One of the aims here is to allow the thoughts and feelings to be present, to step back and give them space, rather than getting hooked in by them and acting out of a highly emotional state.

L is for listening to values. In this step teenagers learn to identify what it is that they wish to stand for in a given situation, what qualities they would like to bring or show. It can be helpful for adolescents to practice using a statement such as “In this situation I want to be ______________________(understanding, forgiving, assertive and so on). This can be a particularly important step for adolescents, as they often report feeling that the adults in their lives make all the choices for them. It is often extremely meaningful for adolescents to develop the sense that there are individual choices to be made in a range of situations, and to experience the benefits of making those choices based on their values.

D is for deciding on actions and doing them. Acting on identified values can be very difficult for teenagers, particularly when they are feeling upset, and this step is likely to benefit from extensive practice. Teenagers can be encouraged to imagine a range of difficult situations and then identify at least four different ways of responding. The more responses identified, the easier it becomes to choose a course of action that is values-consistent. An important point for young people to grasp here is that while they can’t control others’ behaviour, they can choose to respond in ways that reflect their values. 

BOLD skills provide the framework for Louise Hayes’ book, and can form the basis for ACT interventions for teenagers who at times experience emotions that feel overwhelming. If you believe that learning these skills would be helpful for you, or for a teenager in your life, please consider making an appointment to see me so that we can discuss ways in which ACT approaches such as the one described here can support the development of a rich and meaningful life. I invite you to also refer to my article About Acceptance and Commitment Therapy ACT