Understanding how teens and young adults regulate their behaviors, their emotions and themselves

The RADlab focuses on understanding how teens regulate their behaviors and emotions. We are trying to understand how self-regulation works in real life contexts at real-life time scales. Our work explores what social and emotional contexts influence teens’ ability to deploy self-regulatory resources, how transactions with the environment shape the development of self-regulation over time, and how those interactions shape the emergence of health risk behaviors in teens and young adults. In our recent research, we are using something called “ambulatory assessment” to ask teens questions in real time about what they are thinking, feeling and doing. Dr. Kevin King, CCFW Associate Director, is the Principal Investigator of RADLab.

Our Current Research 

In our recent research, we are using a technique called “ambulatory assessment” to ask teens questions in real time about what they are thinking, feeling and doing. In the RADlab, we send text messages containing links to brief web surveys to our participants’ mobile phones. The surveys take no more than a few minutes. By sending them several times a day, we can understand how teens’ thoughts, feelings and behaviors change over the course of a day, and across weeks. In other words, we can measure their experiences close in time to when they are actually happening. These repeated measurements allow us to understand, for each teen, what hinders or supports their efforts at regulating their emotions and behaviors.  

Why we use ambulatory assessment

 By asking teens and young adults about their experiences while they’re having them, we’re better able to understand how their thoughts, feelings and behaviors actually look like in their everyday lives, instead of just when they are in a lab, or trying to remember their experiences. How people function in the real world is ultimately what we are interested in as psychologists, and this method of assessment takes us a step closer to our goal. Importantly, our work on ambulatory assessments could inform how simpler repeated self-reports (like keeping a diary) could allow therapy clients, or even the general public,to learn about their own patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviors to help improve their own lives. 

What We’re Learning

We’ve learned that people who report that they often act impulsively in the face of negative emotions also 1) experience higher than expected levels of depressive and anxiety symptoms, 2) experience more unhappiness and anxiety in their daily lives, and 3) report emotion regulation strategies that tend to worsen, rather than help, their experience of negative emotions. We have also found that people vary quite a bit in how impulsive they are across days and weeks. Even people who report that they tend to be impulsive aren’t impulsive all, or even some, of the time. We are learning important things about how emotions impact impulsive behaviors in the same day and how some kinds of impulsive behaviors (like acting on cravings, urges, or impulses) are different from others (like thinking and planning ahead or giving up easily). Our work seems to suggest that acting on cravings, urges and impulses are most strongly linked to negative emotional experiences, while thinking and planning ahead or persisting towards goals tends to be less strongly related to negative emotions. 

Want to know more? Visit the RADlab website or read our papers in the Journal of Clinical Psychological Science, and Current Addiction Reports. You can connect with RADLab at radlab@uw.edu.

What’s Next

Over the next five years, we will be studying how impulsive behaviors in the face of emotions might be related to risk for alcohol and marijuana use, and how emotion regulation and impulsive behaviors might predict suicidal behavior in real-time. These research projects are currently funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and the National Institute on Mental Health. 

This research was funded by UW Center for Child and Family Well-Being, and grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and the National Institute on Mental Health, awarded to Kevin King, Max Halvorson, and Kevin Kuehn (respectively). It was led by Dr. Kevin King, UW Associate Professor of Psychology and an Associate Director of CCFW. Additional authors were Madison Feil, Max Halvorson, Kevin Kuehn, Katherine Seldin, and Michele Smith, graduate students in the UW Department of Psychology; Dr. Connor McCabe and Dr. Kristine Louie, UW Psychology graduates, and Dale Kim, a post-baccalaureate student at UW, and later a doctoral student at UCLA.