Big feelings: what’s normal and what’s not?
Teenage emotions can be erratic and difficult to deal with. But with the rate of social and emotional development occurring in teenagers, it’s no wonder they experience more than their fair share of overwhelming feelings.
“Why are teenagers so emotional?” is a stereotypical question that gets thrown around in exasperation at the antics and mood swings of hormonal high schoolers. But the complexity of teenage emotions is nothing to make light of. When moods interfere with everyday life, it could be a sign of a more serious mental health issue.
We spoke with Professor Vanessa Cobham from UQ’s School of Psychology to receive expert advice on how to deal with teenage emotions, and what parents can do to help teens grappling with big feelings.
Dealing with teenage emotions
Emotional ups and downs are a normal part of life for teenagers – and really, for anyone at any age. Some days they will be cheerful and bright, while other days they might feel sad, flat and irritable. Take into account the significant social and emotional development in teenagers, and it’s understandable that they’re experiencing strong and continuously changing emotions.
It’s only natural for teenagers to have frequently shifting emotions at a more intense level than what is perceived as normal. When dealing with teenage emotions, remind yourself that moods are a part of their development and also a sign they’re experiencing more mature, complex emotions that they’re trying their best to navigate. Often, there are physical, social, emotional or psychological factors that act as the catalyst behind it. These can include:
- physical changes in their appearance
- sleep patterns
- diet and exercise
- brain development
- challenges in school, with friends and/or family.
You can’t stop your teen from feeling down. But you can be there to provide them with the support they need to get through it.
Signs of anxiety and depression in teenagers
Sometimes, prolonged moods of feeling flat or acting out of character can be a sign of something more serious. Dr Vanessa Cobham explained some of the signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression to help you recognise if your teen might be struggling.
Signs of anxiety can include:
- avoidance of feared/anxiety-provoking situations (this might manifest as procrastination such as putting off studying)
- reassurance-seeking behaviour (verbal and/or physical)
Signs of depression can include:
- reduced interest engaging in previously enjoyed activities (such as spending time with friends)
- loss of motivation
- difficulty sleeping
- changes in appetite and/or weight.
Signs that point to both depression and anxiety include social withdrawal and increased irritability or emotional reactivity.
Vanessa does stress that this is by no means an exhaustive list and that mental illness can manifest and take shape in many ways.
How do you distinguish between normal levels of anxiety and unhealthy levels that might require action?
Anxiety is a normal reaction to situations that are stressful, unfamiliar or challenging. Those feelings of stress and nervousness also come with physical symptoms such as sweating, heart palpitations, trouble breathing and nausea.
But how do you differentiate between anxiety that sits within a normal range of teenage emotions and anxiety that requires professional help?
“Anxiety is absolutely a normal part of life,” says Vanessa.
“In fact, it is often a helpful emotion in that it can help us prepare for real threats – for example, if you see a car speeding towards you, most people will experience anxiety and this emotion will cause them to jump out of the way of the car (in other words, it serves a protective function).”
"However, anxiety can become problematic for anyone when it tips over an invisible line and begins to cause high levels of distress and/or interference in everyday life."
“That is,” says Vanessa, “when it stops people from being able to do what they want to do or what they should be able to do from a developmental perspective. For example, go on a sleep over.”
How to support your teenager’s mental health
If you recognise the symptoms of anxiety or depression in your teen, don’t hesitate to act. There are many ways you can support your child as they experience teenage emotions. The important thing is to reassure them that they aren’t alone. Vanessa recommends the following:
- Let your child know you’re here and available to talk.
- Acknowledge and (where appropriate) validate their feelings (e.g. “I can imagine that if I were in that situation, I might feel quite worried as well.”)
- Tolerate your child’s distress – this is hard for parents to do. Feelings of anxiety and sadness are normal but it’s when these feelings are persistent and start interfering with daily life that professional help might need to be sought.
- Remind your child of their own resilience (times where they have experienced difficult situations and feelings and been able to cope).
- Prompt your child to draw on coping strategies.
- Seek professional help as required.
Vanessa also put forth her advice on how a parent might approach their teen when they know they might be struggling.
"When things are relatively calm, a parent might comment on what they have noticed, emphasise their support and then non-judgementally wonder out loud if something might be going on for their young person."
“For example: ‘I’ve noticed that you seem a little bit down lately and I wondered if something was going on for you. I hope you know that I’m always around if you feel like talking.’”
Seeking professional help
If you’re uncertain as to when you might need to seek professional help for your teen’s mental health, Vanessa recommends always erring on the side of caution. It’s better to seek help too early than leave it too late. But how do you know when you might need medical/professional help?
“If your child is experiencing persistent anxiety or depression and these feelings are causing significant distress and/or interference in day-to-day functioning (e.g. your child is beginning to refuse to go to school; spending all day in bed due to lack of motivation and feelings of sadness), you should consider seeking help,” Vanessa says.
Your teenager might feel reluctant, scared or even embarrassed to see a psychologist or take medication. It might be a tough concept for them to grapple with. Vanessa encourages parents to remind their kids that everyone struggles and needs help from time to time and that’s totally normal. She recommends making a comparison to physical health:
“If they were experiencing severe stomach pain for a prolonged period, would they be reluctant to see a doctor? Mental health is another element of health,” Vanessa said.
Next time you catch yourself asking “why are teenagers so emotional?”, stop and think about what may be going on in your child’s life, and what their behaviour is telling you about the emotions they’re experiencing. They may need your support to cope with what they’re feeling.
Sometimes, external factors such as social media can play a role in your teenager’s mental health. Read our article How does social media affect teenagers? to find out more.