Mood Swings in Teens and Pointers for Extremes

As if this were not enough, there are the myriad psychological factors that influence individual personality development. No two people are exactly the same and no experience is the same for everyone. Reality is filtered through the unique psychological makeup of each individual. Add to that the fact that each person is irredeemably contextualized within a specific environment peopled with family, friends and other variables that react synergistically with one another. Wouldn’t your mood be swinging? So the first thing we parents need to remember is that mood swings are par for the course with teens. The challenge is to know when we need to be tolerant and when there is a real problem that needs attention.

Mood swings are defined as vacillations between euphoria and depression. Those of us who live with teens know that this describes the scenario. Extremes predominate with the more moderate variations in between almost completely absent. In order to determine when help is needed we need to investigate what falls under the rather inadequate term ‘normal’. Recent studies show that, contrary to accepted theory, the brain continues to develop long after it has reached full size.

Previously it had been thought that the brain, which reaches 90% of full size by age six, had also hit some kind of ceiling in development. What these studies show is that the teenage brain is still very much under construction. In fact, it is the most evolved part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, that is still developing during the teen years. Significantly these are the parts of the brain that are responsible for all that we associate with maturity: planning, judgment and self-control.

Apparently parts of the brain continue to mature into our twenties. So this is good news and bad news. The bad news is that there isn’t a whole lot you can do about mood swings in teens other than to check acting out and practice tolerance. The good news, and this far outweighs the bad news, is that they won’t always have two horns and a forked tail. We can look forward to a future when our kids will be normal adults. This is cause for celebration.

Parents who have labored under the impression that they had somehow failed in their job get a reprieve and teens who occasionally ponder on their alarming capacity for insanity can rest assured that they are only visiting the lunatic fringe. This is one of those cases when the discovery literally necessitates a complete change in approach.

Facts now suggest that immaturity at this time of life is not only to be expected but de rigueur. Hopefully this will put a stop to the disturbing number of teens being diagnosed with various forms of mental illness and slapped onto serious psychotropic drugs that actually interfere with the crucial development of the frontal cortex. So now that the goal posts have changed when do we need to ring those alarm bells?

Here are some pointers:

  1. Depression that persists and is immobilizing is serious and needs attention. So are casual enquiries and comments about suicide. The mood swings associated with the teen years do not include protracted, disabling depression or suicidal thoughts.
  2. Acting out always requires boundaries to contain it. Teen mood swings do make the youth prone to extravagant displays of emotion but if these are destructive or aggressive they will need to be firmly dealt with. You will need to take charge in much the same way you did when they were two years old. In some cases the teen can be helped by anger management courses that also teach useful life skills.
  3. Eating disorders are cause for immediate concern. Statistics regarding teen bulimia and anorexia are particularly alarming. Watch your child’s eating habits. Pay attention if too much weight is lost and monitor their exposure to the destructive aspects of the media that proclaim that stick insects are more desirable than real people. Make sure that you as a parent model a healthy, empowered relationship to eating and body image.
  4. Drugging and drinking is not okay. Though it may seem an obvious avenue to your teen it is a definite cause for parental concern. Finally, communication. Listen. Listen. Listen. Be the kind of parent a teen can talk to. Use a sense of humor. Laughing at ourselves is a powerful way of touching on subjects that would otherwise be too painful to broach.
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