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 his emotional world with you. Privacy might be very important to him.

When your teenage child wants more time on her own or more privacy, 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.

Why the ups and downs?

Physical factors
Young people go through lots of 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. It’s thought that teenagers need more sleep than they did when they were younger – about 8-10 hours each night, in fact. So 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 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 control 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 like friendships, school and family relationships.

Stressful family situations can impact on your child’s mood too.

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, listening to or playing music, drawing, creating her own digital content and so on. Keeping up with these activities will help your child feel secure and grounded, and give her a base that she can use to explore new interests.

You can also help your child identify new 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 there are lots of things you can do to help your child manage the ups and downs.

Helping your child understand moods
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 help your child understand this is to let her know that sometimes you feel flat too. It’s also important for her to know that you’ll be there for her when she’s feeling flat.

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 his emotional ups and downs. Sometimes casual, everyday activities like driving your child somewhere or watching TV together are the best times for him 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 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 also more likely to try the solution if he feels it has 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.

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 he can try different things to see what works best.

Being a role model
How do you cope with tough times? Your child will look to you for guidance and leadership. Think about 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 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 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 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 webchat counselling and email counselling services.