Why emotional turmoil in adolescence is normal

I care deeply about young people and have done since I too was a moody, often confused adolescent who made some big, sometimes life-threatening, mistakes.

The development of the physical body together with sexual urges, novelty seeking behaviours, rapidly changing moods and emotional states make adolescence a very interesting time.

The developing pre-frontal lobe affects the ability of adolescents to manage emotional states such as anger, frustration, fear, boredom, shame and feelings of worthlessness. Their way of thinking can allow them to “frighten themselves with their imaginations” rather than accurately assess the current situation.

We must keep remembering this is all completely normal.

Even though it’s almost 40 years ago, I can still vividly remember a 15-year-boy who came into my English class after a maths class. Suddenly about ten minutes into the lesson he stood up abruptly, kicked his chair backwards and walked to the closest wall – a brick one – and punched the wall really hard! He then walked out of the classroom. I followed him to find him sitting on a bench with his head in his hands. Eventually he explained that he lost it because he had failed his maths test. He had actually broken three of his knuckles. This was the first time I had witnessed the incredible intensity of adolescent emotional angst as a teacher and it was a sobering experience.

Since then I have seen it often – in my classrooms, my counselling rooms and my home. Much like the two-year-old tantrum I have come to see it as quite normal to have these enormous bursts of intense emotion that can be sudden, seemingly irrational and frightening for both the adolescent and the grown-ups nearby.

Emotion is a term that describes certain feelings and bodily changes that occur when the brain is aroused. Emotions are often aroused from an unconscious level of the brain.

Adolescents tend to rely more on the emotional part of their brain. The limbic or emotional brain does some serious growing during adolescence, along with many other brain changes and we must remember that our loving teens do not ask for that to happen and they have no idea it has happened.

There is now significant research that has established that the adolescent brain interprets emotional expressions differently to the adult brain. They can seriously misinterpret normal facial cues, which they had no problem interpreting before!

“Various neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that control and regulate such things as moods, impulse, motivation and emotional excitability are greatly influenced by sex hormones produced during this emotionally explosive time in an individual’s life. Because of this teenagers often experience emotional highs and lows more quickly and at the same time have less control over these emotions.”

– Barry Corbin, Unleashing The Potential of the Teenage Brain (2008).

The adolescent response to threat

When we add to this dynamic mix the tendency for the adolescent brain to be wired via the threat centre – the amygdala – rather than the wise mature pre-frontal cortex, then adolescents are more likely to be triggered than mature adults by often quite small thing. This also influences such aspects as hunger, thirst, sleep, sexual response and hormone production. The limbic system is particularly affected by the great surge of sex hormones.

This is also partly why so many adolescents can be obsessive about clothes, music, personal image, peer pressure and infatuations with others. This heightened sensitivity can appear quite irrational at times to adults because we have a pre-frontal lobe that allows for reasoned thinking. They also experience big highs and lows that occur rapidly. This can be very confusing and confronting for adolescents.

I have spoken a lot about the ‘cracked windscreen’ view that seems to appear in adolescence where young people simply see things very differently to how they saw things before or after adolescence.

A zit can appear to be so enormous after the initial changes in the adolescent journey. They can see a student rolling their eyes at them as a sign of bullying, and they often interpret a parent’s gentle reminder as a form of criticism!

Emotional intensity definitely increases in this window of change. I was once working with 500 adolescents in a school in rural NSW and I noticed that they were subdued, even sad. I quietly asked one of the girls if there had been a death in the community recently as everyone seemed sad. She answered me “No but Noah died on Home and Away last night!” So these emotionally vulnerable teens were all grieving – for a character in a soapie! The emotional distress was very real. It can be easy for us older folks to think it’s a bit silly and we need to really accept that emotional intensity is much higher, especially in early adolescence. This fact is possibly why they can slam doors or discharge verbal diatribes in very loud voices – it really is an intense experience.

Before we explore the emotional world of adolescents we need to remember the very nature of this time of transition from being a child to becoming an adult.

Decision-making through a cracked windscreen

Good decisions involve rationally assessing the risks, benefits and alternative actions that are relevant in any particular case. While adolescents are beginning to think more like adults than children, they often still need help from their parents or other safe grown-ups to make decisions that have serious or long-term consequences. This is because adolescents:

  • Are likely to be more impulsive.
  • Lack rational thinking strategies.
  • Are looking for novelty experiences.
  • Are less concerned about risk.
  • Are not thinking about the future.
  • Are more susceptible to peer and friendship influence.
  • Are more concerned about physical appearance.
  • Are hungry to be accepted and to belong

Even though you were once an adolescent, things are very different for our teens today. It is not so much an generation gap as a generation chasm.

 All emotions are normal – it’s what we do with them that matters.

Let’s be honest we can all struggle with big ugly feelings at times that are triggered by events and thoughts. Mature grown-ups have a finished brain, which means their pre-frontal cortex or executive functioning brain has fully developed and it can help us soothe ourselves by making choices to change how we feel.

We might notice feeling stressed or even anxious and we make a choice to make ourselves feel better by, for example, making a cup of tea, grabbing a piece of fruit, eating a lolly, doing some deep breathing, a downward dog or going for a walk and a stretch. Yes I have been known to lock myself in the toilet for some peace too – a strategy that’s worked for me!

Put simply, events – both real and imagined – and thoughts create emotions and feelings. The limbic part of the brain is where they become the emotional tension that can then flow through our bodies. Sometime with intense emotions there seems to be many emotions happening at once and this can create a sense of confusion – which then can create even more unpleasant feelings. Without a mature prefrontal cortex our ability to make sense of what’s happening and to calm ourselves down is impaired!

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Emotions can continue to exist within our nervous system long after an event that has triggered them. Anyone who has lost a loved one will know that grief and sadness, and sometimes anger, can last a very long time. Blocked, stuck or repressed emotions can stay buried in our nervous system and sometimes this can be problematic for individuals in adolescence and adulthood.

There is a lot of anger in adolescence.

Understand that anger is a symptom, not the problem.

Many parents want their adolescent to stop being angry because they see the anger as the problem. The parent does not understand that anger is a response, and is often a reaction to feeling disconnected, useless, powerless or out of control.

It is important to remember that no matter how nonsensical and frustrating our teen’s feelings may seem to us, they are real and important to our adolescent.

It’s sad that the worst enemy most adolescents (and many adults actually) have is themselves … they attack, blame and criticise themselves with their automatic negative thoughts – and these can sound like an endless negative chatter in our heads:

“I’m useless, no-one likes me, I’m not enough, I’m a loser, I’m ugly and stupid, I’m gonna look dumb and fail when I do the English oral, what’s the point in studying? – I’m too dumb to do well at school, that teacher hates me, my nose is too big, I am so fat, I just don’t get it, no-one likes me, it’s my fault we lost the game, no-one understands me, I can’t do that, I hate me, I disgust myself…”

I call this sort of thinking an ANT attack – ANT stands for automatic negative thought. Children and teens do not have the mental capacity to be able to catch an ANT attack and stop it using their rational mind.

They can get stuck in an emotional state and often seem to make it worse with ‘stinking thinking’. Teens have a tendency to ‘awfulise’ and ’catastrophise’ and the limbic brain can accelerate these big ugly feelings into becoming a threat that can then trigger an overload of the stress hormone, cortisol. This can be made worse if their peers and friends are also in the same space as ‘emotional contagion’ is very real.

Often well-meaning and loving parents and teachers can make things worse by overly reassuring our teens, minimalising their distress and telling them not to worry. It’s a fine balance!

So what can safe grown-ups do to help adolescents manage the developmentally normal stage of emotionally intensity?

  1. Do everything you can to make home be a safe base. Sometimes leave the fight over the untidy bedroom and just close the door. If they discharge some of their emotional angst at you – breathe and choose not to take it personally. Self-harm in adolescence is at a disturbing level and it is seen as a coping strategy for big ugly feelings. Let them discharge these big ugly feelings safely at you (however never accept them lashing out physically at you) because they love you and hope you can still love them as they work through huge feelings.
  2. Almost in the same way that we care for toddlers who also experience the same levels of confusion and frustration, the most important thing to do is to validate what they are feeling.
  3. Become a trusted safe person in an adolescent’s life. Trust, and the role it plays in the developing adolescent, is enormous. When their trust is broken, and they feel betrayed by the few people they have chosen to be trustworthy, adolescents are deeply wounded. Most teens do not allow their parents to help no matter how hard they try. Partly for developmental reasons they push back from parents. This is where adolescents can benefit from having a ‘lighthouse’ figure, a safe adult ally in their lives.
  4. Become well-informed about the unique developmental aspects of adolescence especially the teen tipping point.
  5. Boys and girls tend to process emotionally intense experiences differently. Girls can tend to respond very quickly. Boys tend to internalise these huge emotional confusing feelings and often they come out via irrational behaviours. For many boys they have been conditioned to shut down their emotional world so that they can appear ‘tough’ or in control.
  6. Caring adults can help teens to make sense of their emotional turmoil rather than deny it, make it wrong or minimalise it. Serious, active listening and caring communication are really important. See my Top Tips for Caring Communication with Teens.
  7. Model kindness and fairness above all else while adolescents are walking this bumpy ride to adulthood. They cannot be what they haven’t seen or experienced. Remember to ask your adolescent often, “How can I support you on this bumpy ride?”
  8. In our achievement-driven world we must be careful that adolescents don’t come to believe that they are only worthwhile when they reach clear goals like passing exams or reaching a parental expectation. This can set up thinking that can lead them to having problems later in life. Rather, have them accept that everyone matters and our main aim in life is to make the world a better place.
  9. Help our adolescents with how they see their world and how to know what their individual top-5 ‘cup fillers’ are when things get tough. When our parents and other key grown-ups model self-care, it can also help our teens learn how to take better care of themselves – eventually. Maybe share my Top Tips for Teens: How to nurture yourself.
  10. Choose to bring hope and light into our adolescents’ lives. The world is often a big nasty place and we need to reassure them that things get better. I have found that adolescents are very easily influenced either positively or negatively. Choose to influence them positively please.

“Having hope helps people from overwhelming anxiety, a defeatist attitude or depression. Optimism works like hope—it can lift performance in life. Hope and optimism can be learned just like helplessness and despair.”

– Christopher Peterson, Steven F. Maier, Martin E. P. Seligman, Learned Helplessness (1995).

Accepting that emotional turmoil and confusion is a completely normal part of this major life transition is the first thing parents and educators need to do.

Then recognising what we really can do to help is the second step.

Finally, we must celebrate the enormous potential of this fascinating stage of life – and enjoy the bumps and bruises – with a good dose of patience, laughter, hugs and very good coffee with other parents who are also dancing the wonky waltz we called adolescence.