Caring for kids during their tween and teen years can feel like riding a rollercoaster with no seat belt and a blindfold, never sure when the ride is going to dip or climb. While adolescents get a really bad rap because of their emotional lability and mood swings, here’s an important thing to remember: they often can’t help it.
As infuriating (and frankly terrifying) as the rollercoaster can be for adults, it’s actually our job to help our kids strap on a belt and find the brakes, slowing things down a bit so that everyone — the kids and adults — can take a breath.
Sometimes teens simply can’t help the way they behave
You might be thinking: What do you mean they can’t help it? Of course, they can help the eye rolls, the slamming doors, the hysterical fits of laughter, or the stone-faced silence! The truth is that our kids are at the mercy of their hormones which can make life pretty unpredictable, for them and for us.
Hormones do not circulate exclusively below the neck — they also circulate in our brains. This creates a kind of chemical stew that surrounds the neurons in the brain, affecting our emotional responses to different situations.
Not only that, hormones don’t circulate in a steady state, but instead, surge and fall throughout the course of the day and night, hitting particularly high highs and low lows in teens compared with adults. All of this means that in adolescents, hormones don’t just govern physical growth and development, they also have major impacts on emotions and behavior.
Hormones play a huge part in tween and teen behavior
In genetic males, the dominant hormone during puberty is testosterone (although males also have some estrogen in their bodies). Testosterone surges can trigger rage, anger, or aggression. In addition, although we don’t yet have studies for this theory, we believe that testosterone is also responsible for the ways in which teenage boys, seemingly overnight, tend to go quiet during puberty. Think of their silence (or monosyllabic phase, if you’re lucky) as the flip side of the aggressive teen.
In genetic females, where estrogen dominates during puberty (although genetic females also have some testosterone), the impact of that chemical stew around the brain looks like mood swings in a totally different direction. Rather than seeming angry or quiet, tween and teen girls seem to wear their emotions on their sleeves. They may appear super happy or super sad, laughing hysterically one moment and crying hysterically the next.
There are factors other than hormones that influence teen and tween behavior
Of course, these are generalizations — kids across the gender spectrum will express their moods uniquely, certainly impacted by the hormones rising and falling inside of them but also by their temperaments, personalities, approaches to conflict resolution, local environment, stressors, the amount of sleep they got last night, and on and on.
Any parent of an adolescent will tell you, it is absolutely exhausting not knowing which version of your child is going to walk through the door on any given day. So how do we, the adults in their lives, handle the rollercoaster? Unfortunately, we can’t take our kids off this rollercoaster — hormones are responsible for physical maturation, so tweens and teens are stuck with them. Knowing they (and we) can’t get off the ride, here are some tips for helping our kids and ourselves handle the peaks and troughs while we’re on it.
Four tips for handling the ups and downs of teen/tween behavior
1. Set clear behavioral expectations.
Even though our kids can’t help feeling up and down, inside out and sideways, we can still hold them to certain expectations of how they treat us and other family members. Make it clear that behaving unkindly or disrespectfully is never acceptable, even if it means our kids have to circle back and apologize after crossing the line.
In a quiet moment, not a charged one, we can offer our teens some suggestions for pulling back from the precipice: counting to ten in their heads or out loud; telling family members they need a break and leaving the room, and our favorite (but probably not theirs) taking three deep breaths.
2. Supporting our kids doesn’t always make a sound.
For adolescents who are riding waves of hormones, feeling out of control in their own bodies and mystified by emotions they might not be able to name, adding our own voices to the storm may not be all that helpful. If we want to support our kids who are super activated or super silent, sometimes just sitting quietly nearby and keeping them company without saying a word can go a long way.
3. Don’t discount the power of a hug or an empathetic nod.
Often our kids express huge feelings of frustration, anger, or sadness and our temptation is to solve it or dismiss it. Don’t. We can validate their big feelings with a couple of short, simple, and sympathetic sentences.
We can give them a hug without saying a word (we like to ask permission first if our kids are popping off) or offer an empathetic nod that communicates to them: I hear you and I’m here for you.
4. Enjoy the laughter and the music.
Sometimes our teens’ hormone surges look like infectious fits of giggles, head-banging dance parties, or ridiculous pillow fights. Savor those moments because they are the wonderful upsides of the chemical stew sloshing around our kids’ brains.
And more than that, our kids are inviting us in to enjoy it with them. Don’t let those special moments pass you by because, on a good day, the view from the top of the rollercoaster can be pretty thrilling sometimes.
This article was co-authored by Dr. Cara Natterson and Vanessa Kroll Bennett, co-hosts of The Puberty Podcast.