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Understanding Teen Mood Swings: Causes & 3 Helpful Tips for Adults

Written by Cameron O’Brien, ACC

If you are around a teenager, chances are you’ve caught the fiery wrath of a teen having an “off day.” As they grow up, it might seem like those days are occurring more frequently. You’re noticing that your adolescent’s mood fluctuates often – and when you ask them what’s going on – they don’t have any answers. This article sheds insight on the source of adolescent moods, and lists five ways you can help teens get their emotions back on track.

Why Do Teens Have Mood Swings? 

Adolescents are undergoing physical, social, and identity development at the same time – which is inherently stressful.

Puberty causes hormonal changes that lead to higher stress reactivity and mood swings. Mood swings lead to being more prone to negative emotions, which can contribute to higher rates of aggression and depression. Developing teens are prone to experiencing feelings of irritability, sadness, and frustration from these hormonal changes.

Teen identity development looks like exploring self-expression and establishing independence outside of the family group. The pursuit of autonomy and identity experimentation can be a scary, emotionally-charged experience for teens, which will largely impact their day-to-day mood. 

Teens have many demands to meet in their life – from family expectations and academic performance to extra-curricular goals (sports/arts) and social pressure. Anxiety around keeping up in school, juggling multiple activities, or fitting in with a social group can cause teens to be moody as well. 

3 Ways Adults Can Help Teens with Mood Swings

  • Prioritize Connection

Make sure your teen knows that you care about them, and they are safe to express what they are feeling. If your teen comes to talk, allow them to explain how they are feeling and listen without judgment or problem solving. Be present with them; offer compassion and empathy for what they are experiencing. We were all teens once, and know how difficult it can be. If you see your teen isolating, be intentional about making connections with them. It can be as simple as doing a fun activity together, or even sharing the highs and lows of your day.

  • Model Coping Skills 

As adults, we have learned to navigate stress and mood swings. Teens may not know how to self-regulate, so it’s up to adults to show them how it’s done. Model coping skills for your adolescent by sharing what it looks like to healthfully express feelings. Share with them examples of when you were in a bad mood, what it felt like, and what you did to change your perspective.  Share that feelings are temporary, and can be ameliorated by practicing mindfulness and deep breathing. Another tip is to engage in a gratitude routine with your adolescent. Share three things you are grateful for each day, and have them do the same. Focusing on gratitude allows for a shift in perspective from negative to positive, grounded, and resilient.

  • Encourage Self-Care

We can’t control how we feel, but we can control how we respond to our feelings. When your teen is confronted by stress, encourage them to engage in positive, cup-filling behaviors instead of negative or risk-taking ones. Sleep is crucial for teens, and can absolutely impact emotional resilience. Research shows that teens need 9 to 11 hours of sleep per night for healthy development. Make sure they have the ability to catch up on sleep during downtimes or weekends. Additionally, a well-balanced diet and consistent exercise can help alleviate teen mood swings. Encourage your adolescent to eat a variety of nutrient dense foods and get in at least 20 minutes of moderate exercise per day to boost the concentration of serotonin, a natural mood stabilizer, in the brain. Time outdoors is a major mood booster, too; invite your teen to play catch outside or go for a hike with you.

When It’s More Than a Mood 

Globally, one out of every seven children aged 10-19 experiences mental health conditions.

Results from a national survey the early 2000’s estimates 14.3% of adolescents (ages 13-18) had a mood disorder. 11.2% of adolescents were severely impaired by the disorder.

In 2018, reporting showed that 36.7% of adolescents aged 12-17 years experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. 

When evaluating whether your child needs increased care for their mood swings, consider the duration, severity, and areas of impact. How long have the mood swings been happening? How severe are the mood swings? How do the emotional fluctuations impact different areas of the teen’s life? If the mood swings are persistent, severe, and inhibiting the adolescent’s ability to function and thrive in their environment, then it may be time to call in reinforcements: e.g. pediatrician or counselor.

If the teen is impacted by mood swings but is able to function normally at school, hobbies, and at home, then coaching may be an appropriate intervention. Coaching can help the adolescent develop self-awareness around their mood swings, and build coping skills that are tailored to their needs to increase their emotional regulation. 

Author: Cameron O’Brien, ACC

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