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Raising Teens: They're Still Under Construction

Teens' fluctuating moods can be hard to deal with, but it's not our fault. Blame it on the brain.

They used to warn me.

I scoffed.

“Just wait until the teen years,” they’d say.

I didn’t listen. I knew I had a solid relationship with my son, and I wasn’t worried in the least. 

Then one day a switch flipped, and I barely recognized the boy standing before me. 

His moodiness is hard to deal with. His emotions run rampant. Sometimes it feels like I’m living with the Hulk. 


I’m not saying it’s a terrible stage. It has its perks. He’s very witty, wicked smart, passionate, funny, and creative. He’s a lot of wonderful things. Emotionally steady isn’t one of them.

The good news for us teen parents; it’s not our fault. We didn’t do anything wrong. Blame it on the brain. While our teens look grown as heck, the brain is still under major construction. The rational part of a teen’s brain won’t be fully developed until around age 25, so hang in there. 

According to Stanford Children’s Hospital, “Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part. This is the part of the brain that responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences. Teens process information with the amygdala. This is the emotional part.” 

In a teenager’s brain, those connections between the emotional part of the brain and the rational center are still developing, and not at the same rate. “That’s why when teens have overwhelming emotional input, they can’t explain later what they were thinking. They weren’t thinking as much as they were feeling.” Whew, that explains it. 

Alright, now we understand the problem. What’s the solution? How can we sail through these turbulent waters without capsizing and getting pulled under? Here’s what I’m learning: 

1. I use my own prefrontal cortex. Yes, I’m well over the age of 25, so my brain is fully developed, thank you very much. But that doesn’t mean I’m always using my rational part. Hey, I get emotional, too. And sometimes my amygdala jumps in there like, “Hello! I’m taking over!” When it’s the Battle of the Amygdalas, trust me, nobody wins. So I’m learning what triggers me, when to step away, and when to disengage. At least one of us needs to be rational, right? Before I handle an issue or address a situation, I make sure my prefrontal cortex is online and ready to go. In other words, I do a lot of deep breathing these days.

2. I convey the deepest and most unconditional love. Underneath all that angst and moodiness is a boy who desperately needs to know he’s loved for who he is regardless of his big emotions or mistakes. I know it sounds nice, but it’s backed scientifically as well. Researchers have documented the negative results when children don’t receive unconditional love. It is one of the most powerful factors for healthy development in children and teens leading to healthier brain development, greater stress resilience, and an enhanced ability to form positive relationships.

3. I see and speak the good in them. Our teens face a lot of criticism. Teachers, coaches, counselors, and peers are always on their backs about something. I can’t be another critical voice in my son’s ear. I’m the safe haven. I’m in his corner, being his cheerleader and his biggest supporter. As they are navigating this journey of figuring out who they are and where they belong in the world, they need at least one voice to lift them up, to reflect their light, and to encourage them along the way. Be that voice.

4. I wait to have the discussion. When he has a calm brain, we talk about cause and effect, consequences of his actions, and the differences in facts and impulsive thinking. Doing this repeatedly helps his brain make these connections and wires it to make this link more often. 

5. I let go of fixing everything. This is so hard for me, because I immediately want to jump in and offer my sage advice, but he almost always rejects it. All he really wants is for me to listen and understand him. I’ve learned that the more I try to fix his problems, the less he shares with me. So, to keep those lines of communication open, I’ve had to shut my mouth and open my ears. We have to make it emotionally safe for our teens to share with us - that means no freaking out, no yelling, no lectures. Just listen and love.

It’s developmentally normal for teens to be emotional and moody, but if you notice significant mood or behavioral changes that last more than two weeks, this could be a sign of depression or other mental illness. If you think your teen might be experiencing this, seek professional treatment.

Hold on tight. It’s the final countdown. There will be bumps in the road, no matter how amazing you are as a parent, but your unconditional love and encouragement will see them through. Trust in them, trust in yourself, and don’t forget to enjoy the beauty and wonder along the way.

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