Q: [Tween/Teen] “My daughter goes from rainbows and unicorns to a dark place where everything is a disaster, sometimes in the same day. How can I tell if this is just being a hormonal teen or something more serious? Are there warning signs?”
A: Unfortunately, there is not a clear way for you to determine exactly what is going on with your daughter. But it’s not unusual for both teens and parents to experience adolescence as a challenging time. Teens go through a range of emotions, which may be the result of developmental changes or environmental influences. Biological changes, such as hormonal changes and brain chemistry, have a powerful impact on emotions, mood, and behavior. During adolescence, the part of the brain that manages impulse control and emotional self-regulation is not fully formed, so teens are unable to engage in rational and logical thought processes.
In addition, teens today are under a vast amount of stress from academic demands, peer relationships—further complicated through their use of social media—and emerging individuation and identity issues. This can negatively impact their self-esteem, resulting in feeling that they are “not good enough” and can’t meet the expectations of their parents, teachers, or even themselves.
Given all this, it’s typical for a teen’s moods and emotions to fluctuate throughout the course of a week, a day, sometimes even an hour. That said, parents can watch for signs that might indicate that a professional assessment is warranted. Does your teen avoid social situations or activities they used to enjoy? Are they experiencing difficulties with sleep, appetite, or concentration? A lack of motivation and enthusiasm can be a sign of depression or anxiety. Do they frequently seem sad or hopeless? There’s a difference between moodiness and more hopeless statements, such as “Nothing matters” or “I just don’t care anymore”. Be aware of how often and how intensely your teen expresses feelings like these.
Parents of teens often feel helpless while observing the struggles of their children. Introducing simple habits can help your teen feel more balance and control in their life. Physical exercise—whether yoga, dance, running, or hiking—releases endorphins, a natural mood lifter, and creates a sense of achievement that boosts teens’ self-confidence. Artistic expression through music, art, drama, singing, or writing, is a powerful way for teens to access their creativity. Meditation, or mindfulness, has been shown to enhance areas of the brain associated with well-being, self-regulation, and learning, while allowing us to remain in the present moment. Even if your teen isn’t interested in meditating, taking a few deep breaths can reduce stress and quiet the mind.
Teens tend to be chronically sleep deprived, so anything that improves their sleep hygiene will improve their mood. Researchers have found that teens feel more depressed and irritable when they don’t sleep enough. Create an electronic curfew to reduce stimulation, and address distractions that might interfere with their ability to sleep, such as light, noise, heat, etc.
Most important of all: Talk to your teen. Keep the lines of communication open. Without being invasive, inquire as to how they’re feeling, letting them know that you are there to support them. Demonstrate that it’s emotionally safe for them to talk to you, by not overreacting or judging anything they say. Acknowledge and validate what they’re feeling, even when you might not understand or agree with it. They need to know that it’s okay to feel whatever they’re feeling, and that you are there for them every step of the way as they navigate this exciting and challenging time.
Barbara Nosal, PhD, LMFT, LADC, has worked with adolescents and families for mental health, teen depression, and addiction treatment for more than 20 years. As Chief Clinical Officer for Newport Academy www.newportacademy.com, a teen treatment center with residential and outpatient facilities in Orange.