Parents and Guardians

Moods: helping pre-teens and teens manage emotional ups and downs

Suitable for 9-18 years

If you have any teenagers in your life, you’ve probably been witness to the emotional rollercoaster that is adolescence. You may have a hard time keeping up with all their ups and downs, with emotions shifting from extreme elation one minute to utter despair the next. But why is teen emotional life so rocky, and how is it different from our emotional experience at other ages?

Moods are a sign that your child is experiencing more complex, mature emotions and trying to understand and manage them. This is an important part of teenage development. You have a big role to play in helping your child with this part of their journey into adulthood.

About teenage moods

Moods, or emotional ups and downs, are a normal part of life for young people, just as they are for adults.

It’s normal for teenagers to feel cheerful and excited some days, and down, flat, low or sad at other times. It’s also normal for teenagers to want more privacy or time on their own. In the teenage years, these emotional ups and downs can happen more often than they used to, and they can be more extreme.

Your child’s emotional ups and downs might happen for many reasons – physical, emotional, social and psychological – and not for any one reason in particular. Often you won’t be able to pin down why your child feels up or down – and neither will your child.

Emotional ups and downs: why they happen

Physical factors

Young people go through many physical changes during adolescence.

Their bodies are changing, which might make them self-conscious or embarrassed – or just make them want more privacy and time to themselves. Children who seem to be developing earlier or later than friends might feel emotional about these physical changes.

Another physical factor is your child’s need for sleep. Teenagers need about 8-10 hours sleep and the amount of sleep teenagers get is likely to affect their mood.

Regular, nutritious meals and enough physical activity are good for your child’s physical health and can help with emotional ups and downs.

Brain factors

The brain goes through many changes in the teenage years.

For example, brain changes cause your child’s body to make sex hormones. These hormones trigger physical changes, as well as sexual and romantic feelings. These new feelings can be powerful and sometimes confusing for your child.

Also, your child’s brain will keep changing into their early 20s. The section of the brain that’s the last to develop, the prefrontal cortex, is closely connected to the areas responsible for regulating and controlling emotions. This means your child might find it harder to control some of their stronger emotions, and it might seem that they react more emotionally to situations than they used to. They’re still learning to process and express their emotions in a grown-up way.

Social and emotional factors

New thoughts, new emotions, new friends and new responsibilities can all affect how your child is feeling.

Your child is learning how to solve more problems on their own as they move towards independence. Your child is also living in their own head more than they used to and is busy thinking about challenges like friendships, school and family relationships.

Stressful family situations can affect your child’s mood too.

Helping teenagers have more ups than downs

There are a couple of things you can do to help your child have more ups than downs.

The first is recognising the things your child already enjoys. These might be playing a favourite sport, spending time with old friends, listening to or playing music, drawing, creating their own digital content and so on. Keeping up with these activities will help your child feel secure and grounded, and give your child a base for exploring new interests.

You can also help your child find new activities that challenge them and that help them set new goals and meet new friends. These might be learning a new musical instrument or joining a new social group. Rather than choosing these activities for your child, you could try listening to your child talk about what they like and dislike for clues to new interests.

Helping teenagers manage emotional ups and downs

You can’t stop your child from feeling flat or low. But there are many things you can do to help your child manage the ups and downs.

Helping your child accept ups and downs

It can help your child a lot to know that it’s normal to have emotional ups and downs. One of the best ways to do this is to let your child know that sometimes you feel flat too.

It’s also important for your child to know that you’ll be there for them when they’re feeling flat or having a tough time. It can help just to say, ‘I can see you’re having a difficult day’.

Staying connected with your child

Staying connected and actively listening to what’s going on in your child’s life will help you pick up more easily on the triggers for their emotional ups and downs. Sometimes casual, everyday activities like driving your child somewhere or watching TV together are the best times for your child to share things with you.

Giving your child space

Young people are developing independence and tackling new things. While your child is doing this, try to give your child space or time alone to think about new emotions and new experiences. Let your child know you’ll be there if they want to talk.

Holding off on solutions

If there’s a problem, discussing solutions with your child can be great, but your child needs to contribute to the solutions and feel that they ‘own’ them. Your child is also more likely to try the solution if they feel it has come from them.

Also, problem-solving is a valuable life skill, which your child will get better at by practising. By putting time and energy into developing your child’s problem-solving skills, you’re sending the message that you value your child’s input into decisions that affect their life.

Working together on coping strategies

Learning to cope with and manage emotional ups and downs independently is one of the big jobs of adolescence. And you can help your child develop this important life skill.

One way to do this is by making a list of ‘mood busters’ with your child. These are things that your child can do to feel better. For example:

  • listening to an upbeat or favourite song
  • going for a brisk walk
  • patting the dog
  • getting a hug from you.

It’s good for your child to have a few options on the list, so they can try different things to see what works best.

Being a role model

You’re still your child’s most important role model. Your child will look to you to see how you cope in tough times. Think about how your child sees you working through problems and using coping strategies.

More than moods: when teenagers feel down all the time

Sometimes, continually feeling down or flat can be a sign of something more serious.

Young people can feel down for minutes, hours, days or much longer. If your child seems down, flat, irritable or sad for two or more weeks, or if you notice moods are stopping your child from getting on with their usual daily activities, this could be a sign of a more serious mental health problem.

If you’re concerned about your child’s emotions and behaviour, it’s important to talk with your child and to seek help from a mental health professional. Your GP can help you find the right person.

Most teenagers with mental health problems recover well if they get treatment, particularly if they’re treated early.

Your child might like to call Alo Bushavko on 070 390 632. It’s a confidential, anonymous telephone counselling service for young people aged 5-18 years. Alo Bushavko also offers webchat counselling and email counselling services.


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