Parenting Guild

Understanding Emotional Changes

Mood swings -- emotional ups and downs of preteens and young teens -- can make these years very difficult for many parents and their children. Both parents and teens themselves are distressed by teens' emotional outbursts and have difficulty managing their feelings of distress.

Experts generally agree that the period of extreme emotionality begins at about age 11 to 12. Thirteen- to 14-year-olds are often irritable, are excited easily and are more likely to explode than succeed in controlling their emotions. Fifteen-year-olds, on the other hand, try harder to cover up their feelings and therefore are more apt to be moody and withdrawn. By the time teenagers reach age 16 or 17, they are more capable of taking a calmer approach to life and experience fewer worries and far less moodiness.

Physical Changes and Emotions

Emotional ups and downs have various sources.
  • Hormones, which set off physical changes at puberty, are also responsible for affecting moods and general emotional responses in teens.
  • Worries about physical changes -- height, weight, facial hair, developing breasts in girls -- are also a source of increased emotions.
  • Irregular meal patterns, skipping breakfast and fasting to lose weight are not uncommon.
  • Lack of rest may lead to moodiness, gloominess, irritability and a tendency to fly off the handle.
Parents can:
  • make sure their teens eat a well-balanced diet
  • encourage adequate rest
  • explain the effect of hormones on emotions.
With parents' help, teens feel less worried about their feelings.

Changes in Thinking

Another source of emotionality in young teens is the strain caused by changes in their thinking. Teens are now able to think abstractly. They can reason and explore many options. They can think about and understand consequences. They now imagine "What if." These new ways of thinking make young teens convinced that:
    - what's important to them should be most important to everyone else
    - everyone is looking at them and talking about them
    - no one has ever felt like they do ("Oh, Dad, you don't understand!").
It is pointless to try to convince young teens that everyone is not watching or that the feelings they are experiencing have been shared by others. However, parents may find it helpful to tell teens they realize they are feeling badly. Parents can offer support and encouragement by saying something like, "I'm sorry you're feeling unhappy. If you would like to talk about what's troubling you, I would be happy to talk with you."

Changes in Expectations

Teens must adjust to changes in other people's expectations of them and to their surroundings. Any and all of these changes can leave teens feeling insecure and more emotional. Teens who begin to look more like adults may also be expected to behave like adults. The expectation of adult behavior can put tremendous pressure on young teens and lead to emotional outbursts.

Young teens have considerable concern about learning how to behave correctly in social situations, what to talk about and how to be popular with peers. While learning all this, teens may be extremely nervous and generally excited. Any incident which makes teens feel they've made a mistake is likely to result in an emotional outpouring complete with tears, slammed doors and general depression.

Who Makes the Decisions
Conflicts over control of the teen's life are at the root of most problems between parents and teens. Parents say, "He is not responsible or careful enough to be allowed to..." Teens say, "My parents continue to treat me like I am 10 years old."

Few things are more difficult for parents than trying to figure out how to give teens enough freedom to learn responsibility and self-reliance while still keeping control over behavior that is potentially damaging to them.

Freedom through Responsibility
Parents who begin quite early allowing children to make decisions appropriate to their age are less likely to have problems with teenagers who are demanding "Freedom now!" Children who help decide what to wear at age 5, whether or not to join Scouts at age 8 and when to do chores at age 11 are better able to make responsible decisions about behavior at age 15 and less likely to constantly demand more decision-making rights.

Excessive Control Creates Unpreparedness
Parents who have tried to control every aspect of children's behavior in their young years are rightly worried about their children's demands for more freedom in the teen years. Chances are these children are unprepared to make decisions for themselves.

Many parents find it helpful to give teens as little restriction as they can handle, while still making it clear there are certain aspects of behavior over which the parents will retain control.

Preparation for the Future

Teenagers may become aware of the importance of doing well in school for future job success. In some cases, this results in:
    - anxiety over school that was not present at an earlier age
    - worry about what to do after school is finished.
To be supportive to teens, parents can:
    - avoid pushing their teenager toward a particular occupation and instead offer support, encouragement and help as teens
    - explore their ideas
    - help a teen explore various career possibilities, expressing interest in continued education, training programs or apprenticeships
    - discuss the pros and cons of various career interests by showing encouragement without "pushing" their teen.

Emotional Storminess

The emotional storminess of a teenager is difficult for both the teen and the parents. Parents who are able to take a calm, sympathetic but firm approach find they can maintain good relationships with teens most of the time. Parents who say things like, "I'm sorry you are upset. I am getting upset too so let's talk later," find they can continue to communicate with their teens without getting ulcers in the process.

It is often helpful to remind teenagers it is easier to treat them as adults if they act like adults. And it is very useful for parents to remember that they were once teenagers themselves.

    - tend to reject domination as they seek more independence - resent criticism and put-downs even though they use them themselves - are easily embarrassed and need to be put at ease in new situations - are seeking out adult role models
Adults should:
    - provide informal, one-to-one conversation opportunities on a regular basis - avoid judging teens as "bad" when they behave immaturely. They are not adults and need to be viewed as teens trying to become adults.

Adapted for use in North Dakota by DonnaRae Jacobson, family science specialist, NDSU Extension Service, from a publication written by Judith O. Hooper, assistant professor of family studies, University of Wisconsin-Extension. Re-printed from Parenting Pipeline. Used with permission.
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