Teen moods: what you need to know

Some days your child might be cheerful and excited, and other times he 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 she used to, or her moods might be more extreme. This could be for many reasons – physical, emotional, social and psychological – and not for any one reason in particular. Often you can’t pin down the causes of adolescent ups and downs.

You might also notice that your relationship with your child is changing, as well as how he shares her emotional world with you. Privacy might be very important to him.

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 be a healthy part of adolescence, although your child still needs your supervision and support.

These changes in feelings, behaviour and thinking are normal and will last for longer than moods. It’s a time for you and your teenage child to learn new ways of communicating with each other.

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 with 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 child feel good emotionally too.

Brain factors
Young people’s brains keep developing 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 young people can find it harder to keep a lid on some of their more powerful emotions, and 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.

Social and emotional factors
New thoughts, new emotions, new friends and new responsibilities – these all affect how your child is feeling.

Your child is 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 impact on your child’s mood too.

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 give her a base that she can use to explore new interests.

You can also help your child identify new and first-time activities that will challenge him 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 him talk about his 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 her emotional ups and downs.

Sometimes casual, everyday activities like driving your child somewhere or doing the washing up together are the best times for him to share things with you.

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

Giving your child space
Young people are developing independence and tackling new things. While your child is doing this, try to give her space or time alone to think about new emotions and new experiences. Trying to force conversations before your child is ready to talk might lead you into conflict.

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 he ‘owns’ them. He’s more likely to do this if he feels the solutions have come from him.

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.

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.

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 choose a few of these to try in the future. Over time, remind your child to use these new coping strategies and talk about the strategies that do (or don’t) work for him.

Being a role model
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.

Feeling down all the time

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 his 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 call Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800. It’s a free, confidential, anonymous telephone counselling service for young people aged 5-25 years. Kids Helpline also offers web counselling and email counselling services.