KIDS
October 30, 2015

A Consolation Prize For Parents Of Moody Teens

Parents caught in the undertow of adolescent mood swings take heart: they don't last forever. But for some, problems may run deeper.

There's good news for families overwhelmed by the moods of the teens in their house — they're temporary. Honest.

A study that tracked teens for five years found that their mood swings tended to level out as the teens got older. While the mood swings of early adolescence can be quite challenging for both teens and their parents, the authors advise parents to stay calm and not to panic. These mood swings should eventually fade.

Several landmark events occur in early adolescence, such as starting high school or a first romance.

The study followed almost 500 Dutch teens from age 13 to age 18. During these five years, the teens rated their day-to-day moods, tracking happiness, anger, sadness and anxiety in an Internet diary for three separate weeks (15 days) during the school year.

As they grew older, their ratings for happiness, sadness and anger became much more stable. Only the ratings for anxiety continued to be volatile.

Girls' ratings of happiness and sadness tended to be more volatile than boys', but showed the same pattern of stabilizing with age.

The study did not look at what factors were driving these moods and mood swings, but the authors offer some possible explanation. Several landmark events occur in early adolescence, such as starting high school or a first romance, and these contribute greatly to the ups and downs. There are fewer of these in late adolescence, and conflict with parents also tends to go down. And as teens age, they begin to understand and manage their emotions better.

Anxiety was the one mood that did not fit this pattern. It tended to first go up, then down as teens got older and finally began to increase again at the end of adolescence. This late surge in anxiety could be explained by the transition to adulthood, with its greater responsibilities.

“In general, heightened mood variability will eventually pass,” says first author Dominique F. Maciejewski. It is helpful to know that most teenagers become less moody as they move through adolescence, not only because it offers parents some consolation that the fireworks will end, but also because it, “provides a solid basis for identifying adolescents who develop in a deviant way. In particular, teens who continue to be extremely moody or who get even moodier across adolescence may need to be monitored more closely since earlier studies have shown that extreme mood swings are related to more emotional, behavioral, and interpersonal problems.”

For parents buffeted by a typical moody teen, Maciejewski advises patience. It's important to listen carefully to all the angst and frustration. Sometimes you may be able to ease it by offering an alternate perspective on life's slings and arrows. Adolescents aren't always strong at seeing both sides of an issue but, like everyone else, they do have their “aha” moments.

And of course, it helps to remember that teens do eventually grow up.

The study appears in Child Development.

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