If you're the parent of a young teen with intense mood swings, researchers have good news. Those emotions are probably normal and should calm down as your child moves through adolescence.
But if stormy emotional seas don't subside as teens move toward young adulthood, it may be a warning to parents of larger problems.
Researchers in the Netherlands followed 474 middle- to high-income Dutch adolescents from ages 13 to 18. Forty percent of the teens were considered high risk for aggressive or delinquent behavior at age 12. At various times over five years, the teens rated their daily moods with regard to happiness, anger, sadness and anxiety.
Teen mood swings are most volatile in early adolescence and tend to stabilize as teens get older, the researchers said in a study published Wednesday in the journal Child Development. In the early teen years, cognitive control systems lag behind emotional development, making it hard for adolescents to cope with their emotions, Hans Koot, a professor of developmental psychology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and principal investigator of the study, wrote in an email. Beyond the biological factors, there's also a good deal of change in adolescence, Koot says, including the start of high school, butting heads with parents and experiencing first loves and breakups.
As teens get older, research shows that they get a better handle on their ability to control emotions, conflicts with parents simmer down and they generally learn more adaptive ways to deal with their moods, according to Dominique Maciejewski, the study's first author and a Ph.D. student at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, in an email.
The findings make sense from both a biological point of view and from clinical experience, says Pam Cantor, a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with children and adolescents in Natick, Mass. As teens get physically and mentally more mature, things calm down, she says. With one exception, and that is in the case of mental illness. Cantor says that illnesses such as schizophrenia may not appear until later adolescence.
Although the Dutch researchers found that the volatility of happiness, sadness and anger declined as teens aged, feelings of anxiety remained variable. Anxiety increased toward the start of adolescence, then decreased, then increased again toward the end of the teen years – which might be due to the uneasy transition toward adulthood.
As they approach the end of adolescence, teens are dangling between the dependency of childhood and the responsibilities of adulthood, Maciejewski says. It can feel daunting to prepare to leave high school, head off to college or into a job and become more financially independent. "All these factors ... can be scary and thus could induce more swings in anxiety in late adolescence," she says.
While teenage girls had more intense swings in happiness and sadness than teenage boys, the gradual stabilization in moods across the teenage years was similar for both sexes.
But how do parents know when to wait out the moods – and when to worry? These researchers say it's difficult to know, primarily because every teen is unique. "Parents need to worry when their adolescent child does not show the normative decline in mood variability," Koot says. That might mean a 16- or 17-year-old who is having serious mood swings that are increasing, instead of declining, the researchers say.
Psychologist Cantor says it can be tough for first-time parents of a teen not to worry – parents who are going through the teen years with second or third children tend to have more faith from those prior experiences that things will work out.
The best approach for parents is to remain calm, composed and patient when interacting with a moody teen, Koot says. Listen openly to the teen's feelings and offer solutions or alternate interpretations if the teen is open to them, he says. "If mood swings do not gradually dissipate with this type of approach – or when, despite careful parental attention, mood swings stay high in late adolescence – professional help may be needed," Koot says.
Cantor agrees. "It's better to err on the side of caution and call a professional," she says, "than it is to miss something and feel remorseful later on."
What's needed is more research into teens who don't fit into this trend, Maciejewski says. "Specifically, are there adolescents who do not stabilize in their moods and what consequences does that have for their development?" she says.
Overall, though, try not to worry too much about your teen's moodiness, Koot says. Talking with other parents about their kids can put things into perspective, he says. And it doesn't hurt to remember back to your own turbulent emotions as a teen, too.