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Surviving Your Teen’s Mood Swings

Adolescent mood swings can be like the “terrible twos” all over again.  Just as when your child was two, your teen’s brain is developing at a rapid rate.  The majority of adolescent brain development lies in the prefrontal cortex – not surprisingly, that’s the area of the brain responsible for self-control, judgment, and impulse control.  Teens’ emotional complexity and lives are becoming more adult like, yet they don’t have the coping mechanisms that adults have developed to manage.  Therefore, teens are prone to react very erratically to emotions. Additionally, most teens don’t get enough sleep – due to school, extra-curricular activities, and homework – so your teen’s mood swings can be like two year old tantrums but in a sleep deprived state.  You may notice that less than an hour later, they will be fine…acting and feeling as though nothing has happened.  During these mood swings or outbursts, it is helpful to consider that your teen is quite literally not thinking straight.


Tips for Parents: 

Spend time with your teen – find activities you can enjoy together, or join your teen in an activity they like.  If you’re stumped for ideas, start with things your teen likes to do on their own or with friends (e.g., out to coffee or ice cream, movies, batting cages, shopping, video games, day trips).  This all shows that you’re interested in their life, and available to talk if something’s on their mind.

 Use open communication – Actively listen, and don’t overreact to what you hear.  Look for patterns in their mood swings, and use that as a conversation starter, as it may be an indicator as to what’s stressing your teen.  Instead of blaming, use “I” statements — “I feel hurt when you…” , “I feel worried when…”

 Don’t engage in power struggles.  If your teen is in a mood swing, avoid getting roped into an argument.  A task of adolescence is becoming an independent, free thinking adult, and one way to get to that is to learn how to formulate an argument.

 Stay calm/ don’t personalize – characteristic of mood swings, your teen may say things they don’t mean, only to forget their bad mood thirty minutes later.  It helps to not react and to not take it personally!

 Set negative and positive consequences – Just because mood swings are an expected side-effect of adolescence doesn’t mean their moods get to run the household.  There should be consequence for negative (and positive) behavior – ideally set before problems occur, or in response to ongoing issues (e.g., “if you choose to yell at your brother, this is what I’m going to do about it…”).

 Vent – Just because teen mood swings aren’t personal doesn’t mean they may not hurt your feelings or frustrate the living daylights out of you.  Get that energy out there in a healthier way, to avoid exploding at your teen.


Encourage healthy behaviors in your teen –

· Exercise – exercise in general helps foster healthy self-esteem, and getting those ‘feel good’ chemicals going can help to regulate mood

· Enough sleep/ good sleep schedule

· Healthy eating habits


Seek help – when in doubt, seek professional help right away in a counselor and/or Psychiatrist.  It can be tricky to determine what’s normal adolescence versus what’s a larger problem/ mood disorder, and I wouldn’t want to see something more serious put off too long.  Even if you’re dealing with, “normal, teenage problems”, individual and/or family counseling can be helpful to teach coping skills and find ways to work more effectively through this time.



Is this more serious than average teenagery mood stuff? How to recognize when something’s up: 

Domains – difficulty in functioning in more than one life area – home, school, social life – may indicate a problem or mood disorder rather than adolescent moodiness or situation-specific reaction.

Severity – the more pronounced the feeling/ mood, thoughts, and behaviors (acting out or acting in), the more likely that the problem is more than just a passing mood or mood state.  If your teen is having total and unrelenting meltdowns, without it passing in a matter of hours, this is what I mean by more severe.

Frequency – if mood swings and meltdowns are a daily issue in your household or have escalated in frequency over time, attention is warranted to tend to this as a problem.

Duration – presentation of an exaggeratedly sad and tearful mood that lasts longer than two weeks, may indicate a depressive episode.  Mood swings (depressed to irritable to manic/ hyper) for a prolonged amount of time and interfere with daily functioning may indicate a bipolar disorder presentation.


Higher risk behaviors to watch out for – (warning signs of something more serious versus teen moodiness….)

· Self-harm behaviors such as cutting or burning on self

·  Feelings of suicidality, worthlessness, or hopelessness

· Persistent defiance at home, lying, stealing

· Signs of substance abuse, especially escalating in frequency and amount of use

· Obsessive interest in violence, death themes, or weapons

· Animal cruelty


Recommended reading for parents of teens/ books I like on adolescence/ relevant reading:

“Yes your Teen is Crazy” by Michael Bradley

“Staying Connected to your Teenager” by Michael Riera

“The Secrets of Happy Families” by Bruce Fieler

“Parenting Teens with Love and Logic” by Foster Cline