Moody Teen? Three Strategies That Help

Teens are like toddlers

Posted Feb 23, 2015

Although I'm not a clinician, I often get questions from parents whose adolescents are driving them nuts.  

  • These raging hormones are out of control!  
  • He's so moody!
  • I can't wait for her to grow out of this!

Laying a misconceptions to rest:  It probably isn't hormones

Although adolescents do change mood much more rapidly than younger children or adults, it is unlikely to be due to hormones.  Yes, their hormones are changing.  Yes, that has an indirect effect on their mood (see below).  But they are not HIGHER than adult hormone levels, they are lower than they will be during young adulthood. And although hormones do have a diurnal rhythem, they peak at 3AM, on average.  Hormones are not what makes them grumpy mid-afternoon.

What does cause moodiness? Schedules, food, sleep, and love.

Over the past several decades, researchers have used the experience sampling method to survey teens every few hours during their daily activities.  Results cleary show that their mood does vary more than their younger sibs' or their parents.  But it also shows why: they have crazy schedules.  Take my son's.  He gets up at 7 and eats breakfast, runs around getting his stuff ready, then goes to school.  In the next six hours he goes from a very bouncy Spanish class where he is doing role playing, to a chemistry lab where he has to concentrate, to gym with dodgeball or ultimate frisbee, to math, to lunch with friends, to discussion of some very dense and nuanced literature, to debating civil rights or learning about military history, to orchestra.  If he doesn't have extracurriculars then he walks home and plays video games.

In other words, teens have crazy schedules.  Not surprisingly, teens' moods vary in different social contexts - from boredom to engaged and ebulliant to depressed.  A big part of it is what we ask them to do.  Because their days vary much more than most adults' days do, their moods do as well.

The second thing that  experience sampling  shows us that when teens are romantically interested in someone, their mood is much more malleable.  They run from excitement to despair to anxiety.  And they don't even need to be dating to do it - just interested.

Finally, teens are moodier than adults for the same reason toddlers are.  THEY ARE GROWING.  During their growth spurt, adolescent grow at the same rate as toddlers.  They can be physically sore from that rapid change.  Not only do they get taller, but they add bone and muscle mass, develop new secondary sexual characteristics, add lung capacity and increase their blood volume dramatically.  

Because of this amazing growth, they need the same thing that toddlers do to keep them from getting cranky: food and sleep.

Rapid growth require a constant supply of good nutrients to grow muscle and bones.  It also requires CALORIES.  Teens will eat you out of house and home while they're growing.  Think what is required to grow 6" in a year!  Yet teens are notorious for skipping breakfast, are often given a rushed lunch at school, may run off after school for extracurriculars with only a salty, high fat snack, and often do not sit down for a solid dinner.

What happens when toddlers don't get enough to eat?  They have tantrums.  So do teenagers.

Rule 1 for improving your teen's attitude: Feed them.  

Teens need to eat solid meals for breakfast lunch and dinner.  If they have schedules like many of them do with a scheduled lunch at 11:00, they would probably also benefit from a healthy snack after school.  (My son walks two miles home in the cold after school, and I make sure he's got something good to eat in his pocket so his blood sugar doesn't crash on the way home.)  Yes, they need to watch their calories so they don't become overweight.  But it is easier to do that if they eat regularly and you guide what they eat so they don't snack on high fat/high refined carb/high salt snacks.  Kids who are not hungry are less volatile.

Rule 2 for improving your teen's attitude: They need to sleep.

Much has been made of teen's natural tendency to sleep later and stay up later.  But reality is reality.  If they need to get up at 6, they need to be asleep at 9 or 10 to get enough sleep.  Research has clearly shown that trying to make up sleep on the weekend makes things worse, not better and makes kids more tired, not less.

How to get a teen to sleep earlier?  The same things work for them as they do for you.

  • Make it a habit.  Go to bed about the same time every day.  Don't stay up super late or sleep super late on weekends.
  • Build in rituals.  At one point in my life I was extremely stressed and it took me hours to get to sleep.  I built rituals to get myself ready for sleep when it ws time for bed.  I stopped working an hour before bed.  I went through my 'to do' list for the next day so I had a plan and didn't fuss (see my post on how lists can reduce anxiety).  I made myself warm milk with nutmeg or drank chamomile tea.  I made my last Facebook post, checked my last email, and shut down my computer.  I read or wrote in my journal.  I turned on an audiobook and turned off the light.
  • Don't work in bed.  If you work in bed, it can be easy to stay up too late and hard to transition your mind from alert to relaxed.
  • Cover all those darn diodes.  Those bright lights on your phone and alarm and every other darn thing that plugs in can cue your brain to wake up instead of go to sleep.  Black tape on the diodes and an index card taped over your clock face can make a room much darker and sleep a lot easier.
  • Make the bed in the morning.  This may or may not help you sleep, but research suggests it does make you happier.  And sliding into a made bed is much more comfortable than climbing into a rumped one.  It can also become part of your bedtime ritual.  FINALLY, and perhaps most importantly, lots of kids live in their rooms and like hanging out there for privacy.  It may be their only private space.  If they are going to play and work on their beds, climbing into the made bed delineates the 'work space' made bed from the 'sleep space' bed they've climbed into.

My son consistently told me he 'didn't need that much sleep'.  We just told him he was impossible to live with when he didn't get it.  After he started going to sleep earlier, he realized how much happier he was when he got the sleep his body needed.

Rule 3: Encourage exercise

Another thing that will help teens sleep is getting enough EXERCISE.  They get all jazzed up from running around at school, maybe holding down a job, talking to friends, and then videogames.  They need some way to blow that energy off.  Exercise will help and should be built into their day.  Walking to school or running or a sports team.  A mini trampoline in front of the tv.  Jump rope in the basement.  Wii Fitness.  Anything that gets them up and moving will help their bodies hurt less from growth, get rid of some of that excess energy, and help them get a good night's sleep.

Teens are like toddlers

Several years ago, I wrote a series called What Parents of Middle Schoolers Should Know that begin with a piece called Teens Are Like Toddlers.  And like toddlers, adolescents have strong physical demands - growth in particular - that mean they need resources to maintain their good mood and healthy enthusiasm.  Also like toddlers, they don't always want to do what they need to get it  They don't want a nap.  They don't want breakfast.  They surely don't want to get to bed on time.  That's where parents come in - to help them scaffold their behaviors by giving them rules to follow until they learn to autonomously regulate themselves.  It really does help.