5 ways to connect with your moody teen
Everybody knows about the emotional instability of the teenage years. Some teenagers emotional responses can even resemble the tantrums of the toddler years. Is there an explanation for the moodiness of teens? Yes, there actually is a lot of new research about brain development and why teenagers tend to be higher risk-takers, make poor impulse decisions, and have stronger emotional responses. Dr. Frances Jensen, chair of the University of Pennsylvania neurology department, recently released a book about the development of the adolescent brain entitled, The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. She explains that a popular myth for a teen’s moodiness is the increase of hormones as they navigate through puberty, and although they do have increased hormones, there is more explanation in the maturity of the brain. A teenager’s frontal cortex is not fully developed until their mid-20’s and because of this there are a lot of “weaknesses” that become apparent during these years. This includes the inability to make appropriate split-second decisions, and high emotional responses due to the immaturity of the emotional centers of the brain (the amygdala and the lymbic system). They have high emotional responses that “light up much faster much more intensely” than adults. So their responses to all emotions (the highs and the lows) are felt more intensely and then their ability to make appropriate decisions while in that heightened emotional state is impaired (If you’d like to read the full article of the interview with Dr. Frances Jensen about her book, click here). Hopefully this information helps us have more patience when working with our children, but here are 5 tips for helping a teen navigate through their emotions.
1. Spend time with your teen
Due to the increased desire for social acceptance, teenagers often prefer to spend time with their friends over family. However, this shouldn’t deter parents from planning alone time with their child. When I worked as an in-home social worker, I had to spend adequate time building rapport with teenagers before teaching them behavioral skills. This often required more effort than with small children. I found that removing them from their home environment and participating in an activity they enjoyed (which ranged from going on a hike to playing video games to participating in a sport) provided more ease in talking with them, than just sitting in their living room asking them questions. Be creative and plan ahead to spend time with your teen.
2. Take time to listen
As parents we often want to give the perfect advice to help our children pick themselves up and move on with greater clarity in life, but more often than not, they just want someone to listen to them. Outside of planning one-on-one activities, be present in their day-to-day activities. Teenagers are often busy with school, work, and extracurricular activities and most of their free time is spent with friends, so take advantage of those small moments in between activities to genuinely see how they are doing. Try to be home when they get home from school, take them on car rides to run errands, make family mealtime a priority for all family members to be present, or check in with them when they come home late from friend’s houses. Do whatever works best for your family and child, but when you do see them, spend more time listening to what they have to say than talking. If your child knows you will be checking in with them frequently and that you are willing to listen to what they say, they will take advantage of those small opportunities to confide in you or seek help if needed.
3. Be empathetic
Empathy requires conscious effort because we often don’t share in the difficult experiences those around us are having. Our teenagers’ problems may seem minor compared to the stresses we deal with as adults, but for them at this time in their life, it’s the biggest issue they have faced thus far. Try to see life from their perspective and how you would have responded when you were their age. Listen first, then express empathy before giving advice or trying to help them solve the problem. It may even be helpful to ask “Are you looking for solutions or do you just need someone to talk to?” There are times where they may be seeking help and guidance, but there may be times when they just need someone to understand what they are feeling. This is equally true for successes and positive situations as it is for difficult ones. If they have become infatuated with a new boy or girl, try to show excitement. They’ll be more comfortable confiding in you for hard times if they know you are invested in their happy times too.
4. Acknowledge their mood, but respect their boundaries
As devastating as it may feel as a parent, your children aren’t always going to want to confide in you. Respect their privacy. Continue to provide many opportunities for them to talk with you, and describe behaviors or moods you may be observing, but don’t push them to talk if they’re not interested. Privacy also includes being careful who you share information with if they have confided in you.
5. Help them explore emotional outlets
It is significant that we teach our children that there are ways to deal appropriately with their emotions. Help them understand that it is okay to feel what they are feeling, but that certain activities can help us express all that we are feeling inside, which can provide a unique level of healing. Emotional outlets tend to be more of the activities associated with the left-side of the brain, such as music, art, or literature. I grew up playing the piano and whenever I had a particularly bad day (or week or month), there were a few select piano pieces I would turn to and sometimes I would play for an hour. I felt I could express so much in what I was playing and it often helped me feel peace and calm my negative emotions. If I could turn back time, I bet you could see a connection between the amount of time I spent playing the piano and my stress level. If your children haven’t discovered a good coping skill, help them explore possible options until they find something that helps reduce their negative emotions. Physical affection also decreases as children get older, which is another great stress reliever. Remember to give your children hugs and kisses or massages as they get older.
Although these tips can be helpful for the moodiest of teens, look for signs of something more serious. Depression is real for many teens, and goes deeper than just regular sadness and fluctuations of emotions. If your child has lost interest in activities they once enjoyed, is interacting with family and friends less and less, or is having increased difficulty in completing school and other responsibilities, explore their issues more deeply and seek help from a professional, if needed. For more information and signs of depression check out our article on childhood depression.
Also check your child’s social media sites and text messages regularly to look for possible signs of bullying or inappropriate conversations.