By Raising Children Network, with the Centre for Adolescent Health
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Ups and downs are a normal part of everyone’s lives, teenagers included. It might seem like teenagers are more moody than they used to be, but they’ve got a lot going on – physically, emotionally and socially.

Pre-teen girl sitting with chin in hand and unsmiling

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Many people think that adolescence is always a difficult time, and that all teenagers experience bad moods and exhibit challenging behaviours. In fact, some studies show that only 5-15% of teenagers go through extreme emotional turmoil, become rebellious, or have major conflicts with their parents.

 

The basics

Some days your child might be cheerful and excited, and other times she might seem down, flat, low or sad. This is a normal part of life for young people in the same way it’s normal for adults.

You might notice your child feeling more ups and downs than he used to. This could be for many reasons – physical, emotional, social and psychological – and not for any one reason in particular. The causes of adolescent ups and downs often can’t be pinned down.

You might also notice that your relationship with your child is changing, as well as how she shares her emotional world with you. Privacy is very important to her. When your teenager wants more time on her own or more private headspace, it’s not necessarily that she’s being ‘moody’ – it’s actually a sign that your child is maturing and becoming more independent. This can simply be a healthy part of adolescence. But your child will still need your supervision and support.

These changes in behaviour and thinking are normal and will last for longer than a mood. It’s a time for young people and parents to learn new ways of communicating with each other. To find out more about changing relationships during adolescence, you might like to read our article on social and emotional changes in adolescence.

Why the ups and downs?

Physical factors
Young people go through lots of physical changes during adolescence. They need to adjust to their changing bodies, which might make them self-conscious or embarrassed – or just make them want more privacy and time to themselves. Children whose development seems to be taking a long time compared to friends might seem frustrated by or emotional about these physical delays.

Another physical factor is your child’s need for sleep. It’s thought that teenagers need more sleep than they did when they were younger – about 9¼ hours each night, in fact. So the amount of sleep teenagers get is likely to affect their moods.

Regular, nutritious meals and enough physical activity are good for your child’s physical health and can help your teenager feel good emotionally too.

You can read more about your child’s changing body, as well as sleep needs for children aged 12-15.

Brain factors
Young people’s brains keep developing into their early 20s. The section of the brain that is the last to develop, the prefrontal cortex, is closely connected to the areas responsible for regulating and controlling emotions. This means young people can find it harder to keep a lid on some of their more powerful emotions, so it might seem that they react more emotionally to situations than they used to. They’re also still learning to process and express those emotions in a grown-up way.

You might like to read more about your teenager’s developing brain.

Social and emotional factors
New thoughts, new emotions, new friends and new responsibilities – these all contribute to how your child’s feeling.

He’s learning how to solve more problems on his own as he moves towards independence. He’s also living in his own head more than he used to, and is busy thinking about challenges such as friendships, school and family relationships. Stressful family situations can also impact on your child’s mood.

If your child seems to be feeling flat or low, there could be many reasons. It can come from lifestyle and relationship factors such as not getting enough sleep, not having regular nutritious meals, not feeling connected with friends or being bullied at school. Or your child could be just having a bad day.

Making the most of the ‘up’ times

You can help your child create more positive experiences in two ways.

The first is recognising the things your child already enjoys – this might be a favourite team sport, spending time with old friends, creating her own digital content, and so on. Keeping up with these activities will help your child feel secure and connected, and provide a base from which she can explore new interests.

You can also help your child identify new and first-time activities that will challenge her to set new goals and meet new friends – maybe learning a new musical instrument or joining a new social group. Rather than choosing these activities for your child, you could try listening to her talk about her likes and dislikes for clues to new interests.

Riding the ups and downs

You can’t stop your child from feeling flat or low. But if you keep the lines of communication open, stay connected and actively listen to what’s going on in your child’s life, you can pick up more easily on the triggers for his emotional ups and downs. Sometimes casual, everyday activities like driving your child somewhere or doing the washing up together can provide the best opportunities for him to share things with you.

Here are some other ways to help your child ride the ups and downs:

  • Give your child some space. Young people are developing their independence and tackling new things. While they do this, try to give your child a private space or time alone to process emotions along with new experiences.
  • If there’s a problem, try not to offer solutions straight away. Discussing solutions with your child can be great, but your child needs to contribute to the solutions and feel that she ‘owns’ them. She’s more likely to do this if she feels the solutions have come from her. 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 her life.
  • Work together developing coping strategies . Learning to manage emotional ups and downs independently is one of the big jobs of adolescence. Help your child develop his own coping strategies for dealing with difficult times, now and throughout life. You can start by making a list together of all the things that your child does when he’s upset or worried. Focus on those strategies that help him feel better or address the problem. Discuss new options together. Encourage him to select a few of these to try in the future. Over time, remind him to use these new coping strategies and talk about the strategies that do (or don’t) work for him.    
  • How do you cope with tough times? Your child will look to you for guidance and leadership when she strikes a problem. Consider how your child sees you working through problems and using coping strategies. You’re still your child’s most important role model.
Staying connected with your teenage child can be an important part of supporting your child through the ups and downs of adolescence. You can check out our Talking to Teens interactive guide to see how different approaches to staying connected can get different results.

When the bad feelings don’t stop

Sometimes, continually feeling down or flat could 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 or sad for two or more weeks, or if you notice moods are stopping your child from getting on with her 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 your GP. A long-term mood that doesn’t seem to go away isn’t a normal part of puberty. Mental health problems can have serious long-term consequences if left untreated.

Your child might like to access Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800) – a free, confidential, anonymous telephone counselling service for young people aged 5-25. Kids Helpline also offers web counselling and email counselling services.
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Pre-teens

9-11 years