The years of adolescence are a time for children to establish independence from their parents, learn new concepts and skills, and claim an identity to help with transition into adulthood. This is a period of significant, and sometimes rapid, growth on many levels, which can be difficult to cope with for all parties involved. In 1904, the first psychologist to formally study adolescence framed it as a period of “storm and stress,” a view that still resonates with modern research on the now popular subject.1
In this article, I will attempt to shed some light on the two questions I hear most often in regard to adolescents: Why is my teen so emotional (e.g., angry, sad, anxious)? What can I do to better support my teen?
Modern neuroscience research has shown that significant changes in the structure and function of various parts of the brain occur during adolescence. In fact, the only other period in life during which the brain changes more is the first three years after birth.2
The area of the brain called the amygdala is most often indicated as the human emotional center, and experiments have noted hyperactivity in this region during the teen years.3 This can mean more emotional reactivity to life’s stressors, as well as changes in self-control, decision-making, and risk-taking behaviors. On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex is underdeveloped in teens, an additional factor that contributes to problems with regulating emotions.4
Chemical changes that occur during puberty may also help explain an increase in emotional reactivity and impulsive behavior during the teen years. For example, glutamate increases, acting like a gas pedal for neurons, while another chemical, GABA—which has the opposite, braking effect—decreases.5
All of this indicates that the teen brain is biochemically primed to experience more intense emotions.
Psychological studies have shown that during adolescence, on average, there is increased conflict and decreased warmth among adolescents and parents, particularly during the early years.6 This can be a period of negotiation of boundaries within the family unit, leading to a need for increased flexibility in the relationships between parents and their teens.
Another challenging change is teens reducing reliance on their parents to help them cope with emotions and looking more to friends as sources for support. Whereas children use their parents as references for how to respond in social and emotional situations, adolescents turn to their peers.7 If parents do not understand this is a normal developmental process, it can create conflict.
Certain parental traits may also affect an adolescent’s ability to regulate emotions, such as parents’ attachment styles, their beliefs and attitudes about emotions, levels of stress and social support, and mental health.8
Tips for Support
Validating your adolescent’s emotions is critical to helping them regulate them and avoid engaging in “problem behaviors” as a way of attempting to cope. In fact, research shows that teens who have a parent that responds to their emotions with invalidation or dismissiveness experience greater difficulty regulating emotions and demonstrate a higher number of associated problematic behaviors.9
Finding ways to assist teens in problem-solving can also be beneficial as the executive functions of the brain (i.e., decision-making, problem-solving, planning) are developed during adolescence. It can be tempting to approach teens by telling them what the “right” choice is rather than engaging them with questions that will help them learn how to make good decisions. Some examples of useful questions include the following:
What are the pros and cons of each choice?
What would be a good solution?
What should you do next?
Dedicating the time and resources for your own self-care may be the most important tip in helping your teen navigate their emotions. This traces back to the old wisdom that it’s difficult to take care of others if you’re not taking care of yourself. It also models healthy ways of coping with stress, which teens can learn through observation. If your own emotional state is constantly dysregulated, this certainly affects how you respond to others. So, take the afternoon to yourself, schedule that massage or workout class, or maybe even start your own therapy.
Adolescence can be a tumultuous time for both teens and parents, but remember the vast changes that occur during this relatively brief period of life are shaping independent, free-thinking young adults. If you or your teen need creative solutions for change, counseling can be a source of shelter through the storm.
1. Arnett, J.J. (2006). G. Stanley Hall’s Adolescence: Brilliance and nonsense. History of Psychology, 9(3), 186-197.
2. Steinberg, L. (2011). Demystifying the adolescent brain. Educational Leadership, 68(7), 42-46.
3. Malter-Cohen, M., Tottenham, N., & Casey, B.J. (2013). Translational developmental studies of stress on brain and behavior: Implications for adolescent mental health and illness? Neuroscience, 249(26), 53-62.
4. Hare, T., Tottenham, N., Galvan, A., Voss, H., Glover, G., & Casey, BJ. (2008). Biological substrates of emotional reactivity and regulation in adolescence during an emotional go-nogo task. Biological Psychiatry, 63(10), 927-934.
5. Mariam, A., Maliha, H., Lina, J., Puja, M., Wynand, N., Afsha, R., Ranbir, S., & Sushil, S. (2013). Maturation of the adolescent brain. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 9, 449-461.
6. Steinberg, L., Morris, A.S. (2001). Adolescent development. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 83-110.
7. Steinberg, L., & Silk, J.S. (2002). Parenting adolescents. In M.H. Bornstein, Editor, Handbook of Parenting: Volume 1: Children and Parenting (pp. 103-133). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
8. Sheffield-Morris, A., Silk, J., Steinberg, L., Myers, S., & , L. (2007). The role of the family context in the development of emotion regulation. Social Development 16(2), 361-388.
9. Yap, M., Allen, N., & Ladouceur, C. (2008). Maternal socialization of positive affect: The impact of invalidation on adolescent emotion regulation and depressive symptomatology. Child Development, 79(5), 1415-1431.