Everyone experiences teenage mood swings – parents, grandparents, coaches, teachers, siblings, friends. The emotions of middle schoolers into high school often resemble a roller coaster. Sometimes they squeal with joy or get fired up at an experience, but, often, they struggle to see positives, complain, disconnect and express doubt about their capabilities.
As a coach, I struggle to connect with many when they reach 13. The ones I used to have long conversations with start clamming up, grunting their answers and never making eye contact. The animation and excitement of age 9 and 10 seems to exit stage left in the blink of a curtain call around age 12 or 13. As frustrated as I got as a parent and now get as a coach, I now know the science of WHY this happens. There is a good explanation, and it’s largely because the teen brain is still under construction.
Although it feels like a roller coaster to live with a teen, what’s happening is more like a road closure. During teen years, some “lanes” of the brain are closed. The lanes for rational thought and decision making are “under construction.” There is little ability for teens to access frontal cortex functions including the ability to think, plan, maintain short-term memory, organize thoughts, control impulses, problem solve, and execute tasks (i.e. “adult” functions)
Instead, teens OVER rely on the amygdala, the emotional processing center of the brain. Enter the drama and intense reactions. To boot, the amygdala isn’t fully mature yet, so it can fail to assess risk or regulate impulsivity. Consequently, emotions that come out can seem tenuous, unruly and unregulated – sort of like when driving on the lanes of a highway that zig and zag in construction zones. So, let’s just say that it makes sense when a teen acts a bit unregulated, because some very important roads are closed to them.
So, how do we help teens DURING this construction phase? Here are better strategies than lashing out with the frustration you might feel:
– Teach them emotional control skills. Their rationale brain isn’t available, but yours is. Find out what happened to trigger the emotion and talk about your own reactions as a teen? (It feels good when they realize they are not alone.) Teach them techniques to calm down like breathing skills, listening to music, writing a gratitude list or reading affirmations. Teens are riding emotions because they don’t see or think of any other options – so you have to help them SEE something/DO something other than focus on the intense emotions they feel – which are currently running their choices.
– Teach them to make — and own – decisions as they become problem solvers and not just “emoters.” Help them to be more aware, help them brainstorm options and foresee consequences. Asking questions such as “What’s the downside of that?” can help them spark new ways of thinking. Start with easy decisions to build success and confidence for later. Make sure you point out and give them credit when they make good decisions.
– Hold them accountable – disrespect is NEVER an option. The rules cannot change for teens out of control or that reinforces the craziness of the irregularity of their thoughts and behavior. Requiring them to stop and calm down before continuing requires them to realize that they have crossed the line of what’s acceptable. Consistency is a must. Stay calm and have limits. Coaches might have them sit out or run laps. Parents might remove themselves from a heated conversation by saying: “This is a complicated matter. Let me think on this and we can talk more about it later.”
Teen years are hard – it’s when the hard knocks of life happen – and every adult remembers the hard days and has a desire to “save” future generations from the pains of it. But the brain is under construction and these times WILL pass. And, along the way, those hard knocks are great teachers.
So, as a coach or mentor to a teen, knowing these things tells me:
1. When I feel strong emotions, their emotions are EVEN stronger.
2. My job is to use MY thinking brain to help them manage.
Nobody said this was going to be easy….