is a resource for caring adults—the front-line staff in schools and community based programs—to help teens who are struggling with difficult emotions.
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Help Teens Understand the Needs Behind the Emotions
Read and Talk About It
Elizabeth Johnson, Education Director, Youth Communication

Helping teens to understand the needs that are underneath their feelings deepens their emotional learning. Our teen writers often tell of not having had their physical and emotional needs met by the adults in their lives. In their writing, however, they may be discovering a path towards taking agency in learning how to meet their own needs, and those of others. We have based the following activities on an approach to feelings and needs that comes from the principles of non-violent communication because it focuses on personal healing and building healthy connections in relationships.

Getting Needs Met, Or Not


1. To begin, share with the teens a basic understanding of universal human needs with the handout “Needs Inventory.” You may begin a discussion by asking which need(s) stand out to them the most, as very important, and why?

2. Next, introduce the reading comprehension strategy of making inferences. To infer meaning is to read between the lines and, based on the text, make some educated guesses about things that could be going on underneath the story.

3. Give instructions for reading with a purpose:

  • While we read, think about what needs the writer may be experiencing in their story. These may be direct, or implied. If you can infer a need is going on, write an N in the margins next to that text for “need.”

  • Pause periodically to check in by asking if readers have identified any needs. Model some of your own thinking as a reader by pointing out places where you have inferred a need and coded an “N.”

  • Afterwards, discuss the different needs the writer experienced in the story. Be sure to share your thinking for any inferences you’ve made.

4. Introduce an important connection between needs and feelings. When our needs are being met, we experience positive emotions. When they are not being met, we feel difficult and negative emotions. Share the handout “Feelings Inventory.” Talk about it together to build understanding.

5. Returning to the story, have teens match feeling words to the needs they identified while reading. Discuss the following:

  • What are examples when the writer’s needs WERE NOT being met? How do you know?

  • What are examples when the writer’s needs WERE being met? How do you know?

  • What feelings did you identify in the story? Were there more positive or difficult emotions?

  • In your own life, what are you usually aware of first, the need or the feeling?

  • How can understanding our needs, and whether or not they being met, help us to understand our emotions better?

  • How does understanding emotions/needs help us grow individually? How can it help us to grow in our relationships with friends, families, and romantic partners?

6. We suggest you follow this activity with “’I’ Messages,” an improv role play activity in the “Read and Create It” section (coming soon!)

Elizabeth Johnson
All Activites for Youth are created by Elizabeth Johnson, Youth Communication's Education Director. She specializes in social and emotional learning and literacy development and offers story-based professional services for educators. For more information, contact Elizabeth at or 212-279-0708 ext. 103.
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