It’s Not Just the Hormones: Unpacking Teen Emotions
They’re up, they’re down, they’re up again — at least that’s what it looks like from the outside. But maybe the myths we perpetuate about the adolescent emotional roller coaster represent a cultural habit more than reality. Is understanding how humans experience feelings over the course of a lifetime the key to understanding teens? Join us as we explore how parents, coaches, teachers, and other adults can help teens communicate and navigate the intensity of their feelings. Leading experts on girls, boys, and the neuroscience of the adolescent brain shed light on this perplexing — and exciting — decade of development.
There’s often a classic moment in parenthood when parents wonder what ever happened to their sweet little kid — when did affection turn into attitude? The psychology and neuroscience behind these shifts in behavior can help parents better understand the rapidly-changing emotions of their teenage children. “From the transition from childhood into adolescence, there tends to be a reduction in daily positive emotion,” says Leah Somerville, a Harvard psychology professor. “Adolescents’ positive and negative emotional experience tend to have higher highs, lower lows, and bigger jumps in a given day.”
Big IdeaPart of what we’re dealing with clinically are bright young teenagers who remember when they didn’t feel this dis-regulated, and remember that it didn’t used to be that they’d be in a puddle on the kitchen floor over not finding the jeans they were looking for.Lisa Damour
The amount of negative emotion that adolescents experience is actually not that different from what adults experience, adds Somerville. However, “one of the key challenges in adolescence is the search for one’s own identity and one’s own passion,” she says.
There are plenty of misconceptions about what distinguishes girls and boys in their developmental years. Sure, there are some basic biological differences between male and female brains, but the main differences we see in adolescent development are due to social and cultural forces, the panelists agree. For example, when teens are distressed, girls are more likely to discuss, and boys are more likely to distract, says Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist. Watch Michael Reichert, psychologist and founding director of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives, discuss the implications of gender socialization on boys’ emotional literacy:
Did You Know?
Parents should be wary of how their conscious or unconscious gender stereotypes are forced on their children. “Stereotypes and expectations can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy for the way individuals ultimately act and accept their own emotions,” points out Leah Somerville. Instead, adolescents should be given the freedom and trust to explore their own identities and emotions without the adults in their lives telling them, “don’t think that” or “don’t feel that,” argues Lori Gottlieb, a psychotherapist and bestselling author.
We’re often quick to ascribe teenagers the problems we think they’re having. But in truth, “a lot of the mood disorders that we see in adults present very differently in kids,” explains Lori Gottlieb. To have effective conversations with teens about our concerns for their safety and well-being, Gottlieb advises we can’t start with the belief that there is one “normal” way to be an adolescent. When we assume that certain behaviors are simply part of being a teenager, we can miss out on signs of something deeper going on, like depression.
Big IdeaDepression in teenagers often takes the form of very chronic irritability. It’s like living with a porcupine.Lisa Damour
What’s more, “we don’t trust them to reveal themselves and discover who they are, and the truth of what they want from their lives, by working it out — we react,” says Michael Reichert. What does he suggest as a solution? Learn how to listen deeply, in a way that doesn’t interrupt teens’ ability to figure out for themselves how they are feeling and how to articulate it.
The easiest thing parents can do to help their kids through the tumultuous years of adolescence? Support and normalize their experiences, says Lisa Damour, because teenagers feel so strange in the midst of it. Watch as Damour and Michael Reichert give advice for parents who are struggling to have conversations with their kids around topics that are unfamiliar and, sometimes, extremely uncomfortable.
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