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Mood Management and Emotional Resilience for Adolescents

Downed by a bad mood, a teenager has choices for prevention and for getting out

It’s an observation that parents frequently make about their adolescent with which the young person often agrees: the teenager has become more frequently moody than was the child.

By “moody,” the parent is talking more about moods of the unhappy than the happy kind – gloomy, grumpy, and glum, for example, the kind that make the young person harder for themselves and for parents to live with. Why might this increased sensitivity and vulnerability be so?

I don’t know exactly, but at a guess I would point to three culprits in adolescent life that could make young people more prone to bad moods than was true of the child – change, complexity, and control. There is adjustment to growth change not limited to puberty that demands social redefinition of the person you are -- from child to adult, from boy or girl to young man or young woman. There is coping with the daunting complexity of the larger world outside of the family circle in which the young person must now learn to function – secondary school, for example, much more complicated to navigate than elementary school. And there is a diminished sense of control as one pushes for freedom and encounters more unexpected consequences of choices made – as trial, error, and recovery mark the trajectory of growing up. Adolescence can be a roller coaster emotional ride much of the time. And once on board and strapped in, you can’t get off.

So what is a “mood”? To me, a mood is a generalized affective state that filters life experience through the lens of some dominant emotion that shapes one’s perception of whatever is going on. For example, a FATIGUED MOOD can cause a young person to be more sensitive to what is negative; an ANXIOUS MOOD can cause a young person to be more prone to worry; an ANGRY MOOD can cause a young person to more easily feel offended and irritated; a STRESSED MOOD can cause a young person to feel more easily overwhelmed by additional demand; a DISCOURAGED MOOD can cause a young person to be reluctant to try something new or to try again. Of course, a bad mood is not actually “bad,” it’s just uncomfortable or unhappy.

For sure, now parents have to work with the adolescent’s moods more than they did the child’s. Consider communication that now depends much more on whether the teenager is in a receptive or rejecting mood, whether she is in a contented or a discontent emotional state. “The best time I can usually get to discuss what I want is a bad time being given a hard time because there is never a good time for her to talk!,” complained the dad. Sometimes parents have to battle a bad adolescent mood to get a good hearing.

This said, parents often don’t respect how the teenager’s mood affects his readiness to communicate, when he is emotionally able to open up and when he isn’t. So when her son, for whatever reason, is in a “mood to talk” and the mother is too busy, she puts him off to a little later only to discover that “later” doesn’t come. Now his mood has changed and the opportunity for conversation has passed. So the lesson for parents is: when your teenager is in a mood to talk, drop whatever you are doing and immediately attend or this momentary break in the emotional clouds, this opening, is likely to quickly pass.

Sometimes a bad mood is triggered by an adolescent making a painful experience worse by berating themselves for what did or didn’t happen. So the high school player, after missing the winning shot and suffering a team loss, labels herself a “loser.” Or the high school senior is jilted by a serious girlfriend and labels himself as a “reject” for being thrown over. In each case, adding punishing self-criticism to an unhappy event can amplify a bad experience into a generalized bad mood. So parents need to help their daughter or son not use negative self-talk to make a hard situation worse.

Sometimes a basic need can be denied and that triggers a bad adolescent mood. For example, instead of being well, he feels sick; instead of getting enough sleep, she feels exhausted; instead of staying exercised, he falls out of physical condition; instead of working for competence, she succumbs to failing effort; instead of keeping fed, he feels hungry; instead of feeling socially attached, she feels isolated. So, it can be helpful for parents to encourage the adolescent to maintain themselves. Staying well, getting sleep, staying in shape, trying to perform well, eating regularly, socially belonging, can all serve as bulwarks against the sensitivity and vulnerability to bad moods.

Sometimes, moods are downright mysterious. The young person wakes up on “the wrong side of the bed,” starting the day feeling out of sorts and at a loss for how to get herself more happily together. “I can’t help it!” she announces to her parents, “I’m just in a bad mood!”

At this point parents can help the teenager understand that she is both correct and incorrect. The young woman is correct because this mood was not of her conscious choosing. It just arrived. Who knows how or why? The young woman is incorrect, however, because she may be able to change it now with three tools for mood management that are usually worth a giving a try.

Because moods feel emotional, that is what young people often think they simply are – a form of bad feeling. Instead, I believe moods are actually a mix of three parts – of feeling, thought, and action. For a mood to take hold, not only is a young person beset by down feelings, they are usually thinking down thoughts and acting in down ways, a mutually reinforcing combination that can be hard to combat. Thus, after failing to make the cut, a bad mood takes hold when the teenager is feeling disappointed in himself, is thinking that he doesn’t measure up, and is acting solitary, treating himself as undeserving of social company.

Fortunately, within the mood are three resilient options for its relief, three ways for the adolescent to break out of the bad mood, each with a well-worn slogan of its own.

1) Minister to down feelings by confiding them to someone else. “Misery loves company” the saying goes. When unhappy feelings are shared with a parent or friend, this communication can lighten the emotional burden and restore wellbeing. “I feel better after being listened to.”

2) Minister to down thinking by trying on a positive perspective. “An attitude of gratitude” the saying goes. When one assumes that life is half full and not half empty, that appreciative and hopeful view can feel affirming. “I feel better when I focus on what’s good and going well.”

3) Minister to down behavior by acting happy. “Fake it until you make it” the saying goes. Act counter to how the discontented mood suggests. Smiling in spite of sadness can encourage gladness to grow within. “I feel better when I put on a happy face.”

Finally, if despite your adolescent’s best efforts to the contrary, the troubling mood will not lift, sticks around, and deepens over time, then getting psychological assistance is in order because one key component of mood management, and contributor to emotional resilience, is recognizing when there is a need for outside help.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence” (Wiley, 2013.) More information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

I welcome questions and suggestions for future blogs.

Next week’s entry: Adjustement Anxiety in Early Adolescence

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