Of all the challenges they face in raising tweens and teens, parents probably complain most about the rapid mood swings of adolescence. Kids can be devastated and dejected one day and on top of the world the next.
Sometimes the mood changes on a minute-by-minute basis. Who hasn’t been in a conversation with a teen where light-hearted joking turns to a foot-stomping, door-slamming hissy fit the next?
To borrow a phrase from our beloved kids, “It’s so unfair!”
If it seems like it’s worse now than ever, you’re probably right. Today’s tweens and teens are faced with more pressure, higher expectations and demands on their time than previous generations, and it’s stressful. Stress leads to irritability, anxiety and even depression.
And then again, sometimes it’s just hormonal teens being teens. The trick to surviving this time of their life is to know the difference between normal moodiness and something more serious. A good start is to understand how their needs are changing. Tweens and teens experience:
The need to reinvent themselves, sometimes daily. They have no idea who they are, but they’re willing to try on lots of different faces as they figure it out. A good coping mechanism is to not get too invested in any whims, good or bad. So just as you don’t get your heart set on them being an astronaut or Olympic equestrian, if that’s where their interests lie for a week, don’t get bent out of shape if they experiment with being Goth for a week.
The need for attention. They want to know that you love them and they matter to you, but you’re not allowed to be as overt with your attention as you once were. A heartfelt comment about how proud you are of them is far more appreciated than an embarrassing public hug or kiss in front of their friends.
The need for privacy. This is tough, when the previously chatty fifth grader becomes the secretive and sullen sixth grader. Don’t overwhelm them with questions. Let them open up to you on their own timetable, and listen for subtle clues about what is going on in their heads.
The need for freedom. In their minds, they know everything they need to know to navigate the world. It’s not true, of course, but they are developing new skills every day. Let’s give them credit where it’s due and let them have a taste of freedom and trying things (and perhaps failing) for themselves. Figure out ways to say yes instead of no.
The need for limits. Tweens and teens still need us to let them know what’s OK and what’s not OK. They may not agree with us, but they depend on us setting restrictions as a basis for the opinions they’re forming. Having no restrictions leaves them feeling unmoored and insecure.
Understanding these needs can help you maintain some perspective throughout the mood swings years. You might also want to ask yourself these questions:
Is he getting enough sleep? Adolescents need anywhere from 8 to 11 hours of sleep. That’s a huge range. Your youngster may think he’s getting enough with 8 hours sleep, but he may actually function better with 10. Insufficient sleep and an out-of-whack circadian rhythm can make for an emotional kid.
Is she eating too much sugar or caffeine? A bad diet with sugar lows can make anyone crabby. Having too much caffeine one day and none the next can lead to withdrawal headaches. Help her even out her moods with frequent, small healthy meals and snacks. Let your teen have tea or coffee at home so she’s not purchasing triple espressos at the coffee shop.
Does he have enough down time? Your idea of unwinding might be a bubble bath with a glass of wine. His might be playing Pokemon Go with friends. Let him do what he wants to do to relax with a minimum of nagging.
Is she over-scheduled? Is your tween or teen juggling so many different classes and activities that she doesn’t know what to do next? Helping her prioritize, manage her time and maybe even say no to a few commitments is teaching her healthy skills for adulthood.
Am I over-involved? Let’s face it. We’re far more involved in our kids’ lives than our parents were in ours—which means it was far easier for them to ignore our moods. Yes, we always want to be available for our kids, but maybe we need to step back and give each other a little room to breathe. It will help your mood swings too!
Do you need to intervene? If the moodiness is extreme or prolonged, have an open and honest conversation about their mental health. You might open by saying that you’ve noticed she doesn't seem happy and ask if there’s something specific bothering her, or does she feel sad without knowing why. If she doesn’t want to talk to you, ask if she would like to speak to someone who specializes in talking to teens—then follow up with an appointment as soon as possible.
Handling adolescent mood swings takes preparation, understanding, creativity and patience, just like navigating the terrible twos. Think back to the tools you used when parenting your toddler, and you’ll be well prepared for the tween and teen years.
Maureen Connors Badding is a Wauwatosa freelance writer, mom and habitual volunteer.