Responding to Teenagers’ Emotional Meltdowns: How Outward Bound Instructors Facilitate Development of Anxiety Management Skills

Reed W. Larson, Carolyn N. Orson, Gina McGovern

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Rates of intense anxiety among teenagers have risen dramatically, a major concern. Outward Bound (OB), a wilderness expedition program that promotes learning through challenge experiences, is found to help youth decrease anxiety. To understand how program staff support this learning, we asked 30 OB instructors to describe their successful work with a youth following an intense anxiety episode (a “meltdown”). Using grounded theory analyses we identified eight practices OB instructors employed that facilitated the youth’s emotional learning. Examples include: helping them open up to examine their emotions, providing tools for detecting and regulating rising anxiety, and instructor-youth co-planning to manage upcoming anxiety-inducing situations. The analyses also revealed the intentionality in each practice: when it was used, its goals, strategies employed, and how each facilitated youth’s active emotional learning. Youth’s learning processes across practices evolved from being instructor-initiated to youth-driven. The skills youth learned progressed from understanding emotions, to controlling imminent anxiety, to controlling anxiety about future situations, to taking responsibility for the impact of their emotions on others. These OB practices, we suggest, can be flexibly adapted to other youth development settings to help teens build competencies to manage anxiety, including when taking on new demanding challenges.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)761-799
Number of pages39
JournalJournal of Adolescent Research
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 2023


  • extracurricular)
  • mental health/psychopathology
  • organized activities (after-school
  • positive youth development
  • qualitative methods
  • resilience

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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