Teens experience rapid mood swings due to a combination of hormonal changes and brain development. While hormones play a role, significant mood fluctuations are also attributed to uneven brain development, particularly in the limbic system and prefrontal cortex, leading to intense emotional reactions and an imbalance in impulse control. Additionally, a decrease in dopamine levels contributes to mood instability.
This period of brain development is seen as a time of adaptive flexibility, enabling teens to learn, take risks, and develop independence. To manage moody teenagers effectively, parents can provide a calm, consistent presence, offer emotional support rather than punishment, promote autonomy, listen actively, attune to their emotional state, establish healthy sleep habits, encourage physical activity and meditation, and be vigilant for signs of depression or drug abuse.
These strategies can support teens through this transitional period, ensuring their well-being and fostering a positive parent-teen relationship.
Teens are moody creatures. They can go from a good mood to a bad mood in a matter of seconds, as if on an emotional roller coaster. Many parents have a difficult time understanding and dealing with their moody teenagers.
Adolescence is a period where childhood transitions to adulthood. It occurs around the onset of puberty and ends when the child is relatively independent of their parents.
During this time, teenagers are often described as moody, angry, emotional, reckless, impulsive, selfish, hasty, and foolish, among other words. You must wonder how the human species survive with those characteristics and behavior.
As it turns out, there are some good reasons why your teen is moody and hormonal shifts are not the primary cause.
Causes of teenage mood swings
In the past, many people thought that moody teenagers resulted from increased hormonal levels and immature teen brains. It’s almost as if adolescence is a time of brain deficiency and ineffectiveness.
But over the last few years, a different scientific explanation has emerged, one that makes more sense why the human race is still alive despite the radical behavior change in our moody teens.
Teen mood swings – hormones are not entirely to blame
Earlier studies show that hormonal surges that start the effects of puberty begin before the teenage years. As a result, these hormones affect the mood and the development of the body and brain long before the teen years1.
There is no doubt that sex hormones can affect mood and behavior in individuals. The rising levels of hormones in teenagers do contribute to strong emotions and changes in mood stability.
But is the impact greater on these young people than adults or younger children? There is little evidence to substantiate this claim2.
Instead, evidence is mounting that adolescent mood swings result from more than just hormonal fluctuations but also brain growth and changes in brain activities.
Imbalanced brain development
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), neuroscientists can now see inside the brains of children and teenagers to study their development.
They have found that teenagers are so moody mainly because the brain develops at different rates in different brain regions. During early adolescence, there are rapid decreases in gray matter and increases in white matter in the limbic system (hypothalamus and amygdala)3. These areas of the brain deal with emotional responses. They mature earlier than the frontal lobes (prefrontal cortex), the part of the brain responsible for judgment, impulse control, and self-regulation.
The imbalance in developmental rates of these two areas in teenagers amplifies their primitive brain reactions. As a result, emotional fluctuations in teens are faster and more intense than in young adults or kids3.
Sensitivity to potential threats
Parents’ agitated responses to their teens’ moods can contribute to mood swings because potential threats can also affect a teen’s ability to self-control.
Evolutionarily, the ability to sense danger is crucial for human survival. But when the control center in the adolescent brain is underdeveloped, teens are more likely to overreact to even mild indications of threat.
Any parent of a teen can attest that a minor facial expression, negative look, or even worried glance can trigger moody behavior in teens.
Decrease in the neurotransmitter dopamine
Dopamine, one of the neurotransmitters in the brain, controls the ability to experience pleasure and pain. During adolescence, there is a dopamine deficiency which also contributes to extreme mood swings and difficulty in self regulating4.
Why do brains develop this way
Perhaps you are wondering why human brains develop in such a way that leaves teenagers unpredictable and vulnerable.
A new study suggests that adolescence is a time of adaptive flexibility rather than a time of chaos and weaknesses.
From brain scans, scientists have found that during adolescence, the neural circuitry becomes more flexible. Teenagers become less inhibited5 and more open to risk-taking6. They show greater tolerance for ambiguity7 and a willingness to engage in high-risk activities.
This adaptability supports teens’ learning of the environment and helps them separate from their parents to seek new opportunities8. Brain plasticity also allows for the development of new talents and lifelong interests.
So the unwelcome mood swings and unpredictable behavior don’t mean to characterize adolescents. These are the things we notice the most, mainly because we find them annoying or dangerous to our children. However, their main goal is probably to help our kids become independent.
How to deal with a moody teenager
Even though teens’ brain circuits may be adaptable by design, the increased risky behaviors and diminished self-control can pose dangers to themselves and others.
As teenagers develop, their reasoning ability rises, their resistance to disease increases, and they become stronger and healthier than ever before, yet studies show that the mortality rate increases by 200%.
Needless to say, teens’ mood swings can make daily activities such as having dinner together unpleasant or stressful for the family.
Here is what you can do to help your teen get through this transition period safely and pleasantly.
Be a calm, consistent presence
In the teenage years, the brain is more flexible and less regulated to prepare it for the transition into adulthood. The unfortunate downside is that their mood swings and teenage angst can be intense and upsetting to parents.
The goal of these changes is not about attacking you or being defiant. So take a deep breath and try not to take typical teenage mood swings personally.
It may be difficult, but this phase will pass.
Even if your teen seems to have an attitude and act disrespectful to you, stay calm and do not lose your cool. Be the most reliable calming force in the storm while holding clear boundaries for teenage behavior.
In other words, you can address poor behavior calmly and kindly.
Emotions are contagious. You already see that their anger can trigger your anger. Stay calm and do not let your anger feedback to them and escalate everyone’s emotions.
Staying calm may not seem like a “solution” to your problem, but it truly can smoothen the situation rather than intensify it.
Be supportive, not punitive
Dealing with this awful mood is unpleasant, but it can be even worse for your teen. Imagine getting enraged over the tiniest things and not being able to control your own mood.
It’s not fun to be upset.
Nobody enjoys having mood swings.
Parents’ handling of their adolescent’s emotions has a profound effect on their teenager’s behavior and emotional well-being.
Teenagers with emotionally supportive parents tend to be more well-adjusted9. Those whose parents punish or dismiss their emotional responses are more likely to develop behavioral problems and depressive episodes or symptoms10.
It is easy to blame mood swings on hormones or adolescence, but teens don’t always become upset for no reason.
Teenagers with controlling parents often suppress their pent-up anger, but changes in their brains make it more difficult to do so, resulting in more emotional outbursts.
Controlling parenting predicts oppositional behavior and conduct disorder in adolescents11.
Instead of controlling your child, allow them more freedom to develop independence. Parents’ autonomy support is associated with more intrinsic motivation to study and better academic performance12.
Listen to your moody teenager
Listening is another important step we can take to help our teens learn to regulate.
Nothing is more aggravating than being scolded, ignored, and not listened to.
Teenagers often feel dismissed and disrespected when parents lecture them instead of listening to them. Listen to what they say and try to see things from their perspective.
Attune to your teen’s emotions
Attunement is matching your teenager’s emotional state.
When you are attuned to your teen’s emotional state, they can clearly see that you understand them.
Don’t just mimic their behavior or words. Being attuned is more than just making eye contact or verbally acknowledging them. It is showing empathy or demonstrating that you truly understand their feelings13.
Establish healthy sleep habits
A teenager’s sleep patterns change during adolescence. Their internal clock (circadian rhythm) makes them prefer to sleep in the morning and stay up later at night.
Persistent sleep deprivation can affect a teen’s mood and academic performance. Help them get enough sleep and establish healthy habits, like avoiding electronic devices before bedtime14.
Encourage exercises and meditation
Staying active is important during this time. Both physical activities15 and mindfulness meditations have been shown to promote elevated mood and energy levels16. Encourage your child to include them in their daily activities.
Pay attention to signs of depression or drug abuse
Teenagers suffer from mental health problems at an alarming rate, with one in five battling a mental illness issue such as depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, or bipolar disorder. Substance abuse is also common among teens. Both mental issues and drug use can contribute to mood swings17.
Having a depressed mood is normal every now and then, but prolonged mood swings or persistent teen depression warrants careful attention.
If you’re concerned or if your child shows symptoms of teen depression, don’t hesitate to consult your child’s pediatrician, healthcare provider, or psychologist. They can assist you in determining whether the emotional changes are normal teenage mood swings or something that needs a more in-depth evaluation. If you notice serious symptoms of depression, such as suicidal thoughts or a suicide attempt, seek help from mental health professionals immediately.
More parenting resources
Learning about parenting teens.
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