You Can Blame Your Teen’s Brain for the Mood Swings

teen tween mood swings impulsive


How The Teenage Brain Impacts Behavior

Parents often complain about their teenagers acting rude, impulsive, and unpredictable at times, which can be maddening and exhausting when raising a teen. Thankfully, research and brain imaging over the last decade have helped make sense of a teenager’s confusing behavior. It suggests that teens aren’t intentionally being impulsive, forgetful, or irrational, but rather, their behavior is mostly out of their control. It turns out, their brains are under construction and in the process of being rewired.

Let’s take an in-depth look into our teen’s brain and how it impacts behavior. Once we have a better understanding of this biological process, we will be more equipped to navigate these tumultuous years with our teens.

Here are three facts parents need to know about the teenage brain and how it affects their behavior:

Fact #1: The teenage brain is being rewired.

Adolescents are dealing with social, emotional, and cognitive changes that don’t fully develop until around 25 years of age.

Only about 80% of the teen brain is fully developed. There are what’s called synaptic connections that help to hardwire the brain that isn’t yet fully connected.

This “building” of their brain causes mood swings, irritability, impulsiveness, and roller coaster emotions.


Fact #2: The connectivity of the brain moves from the back of the brain to the front. The last place to “hard wire” is the frontal lobe, which controls their impulse control.

They will make mistakes and not always connect cause with effect.

They may struggle to make rational decisions.

Risk-assessment is lacking. They may have limited impulse control.

They may struggle with executive functioning and focus.

They may be forgetful and have difficulties remembering to do something.


Fact #3: The prefrontal cortex is improperly balanced with the emotional part of their brains.

The prefrontal lobe is the thinking and CEO-center of the brain. It controls decision-making, problem-solving, judgment, and self-control.

They have a higher urgency and intensity of emotional reactions. This means they may be moody and fly off the handle at times.

50% of teenagers have trouble reading facial expressions, which leads to miscommunication and adolescents may read your concern as anger.

They may react quickly from the emotional part of their brains due to the lack of development in the reasoning area of the brain.

They will have emotional highs and lows.

Sometimes they may find it difficult to have empathy.


What can parents do to help their teens through this developmental process?

Keep communication open with less lecturing and more listening.

Strive first and foremost to keep the lines of communication open and stay calm. Listen to what they have to say and how they are feeling. Teens need encouragement and affirmation from us during these difficult years. Nagging, criticizing, and lecturing will shut teens down, so set realistic expectations. Practice patience and allow room for mistakes to happen while still holding them accountable.

Remind them to think first before they act.

Because teens have not fully developed their impulse control, we need to regularly remind them to consider the consequences of their actions. Talk about the negative repercussions that can transpire with specific impulsive behaviors and discuss ways to avoid making those quick decisions without thinking first.

Teach them to be responsible and accountable.

Repetition is important to our teenager’s brain development. Because teens can be forgetful, encourage them to practice techniques that will help them remember their tasks. If they don’t put something away, continue to remind them. Make sure they learn to follow through and complete tasks. Their over-active brains struggle to set limits so teach them to become self-disciplined by establishing the amount of time for certain activities such as the phone or internet.

Help them manage their stress.

Teens get overwhelmed easily and often can’t manage several instructions at once. It’s better to give them one or two directives and write them down so they don’t forget. Also, it’s important our teens have creative and physical outlets for their stress. It could be sports, drawing, journaling, jogging, whatever they enjoy that will help them take a break from life’s obligations.

Make sure they get enough sleep.

Teenagers need 9-12 hours of sleep per night to function at their best. Lack of sleep affects emotional regulation and impairs decision-making. Chronic sleep deprivation in teens lessens the brain’s ability to learn new information and can lead to depression and aggression. Researchers have found that sleep problems are not a side effect of teen depression, but rather a cause.

Help them to plan ahead.

Teens need guidance in learning how to strategize for the future, whether that is the next day’s events or the following week’s schedule. Help them think proactively for whatever lies ahead by asking them questions about their plans and how they are preparing for them.

Have rules and consequences.

Teens need us, as parents, to set up expectations and limitations to help them exercise responsibility. Appropriate consequences are equally important in teaching them accountability. Studies have shown that adolescents who rarely or have never experienced negative consequences for risky behavior are more likely to keep repeating similar behaviors.

Encourage positive activities and experiences.

Teens need to find positive ways to boost their feel-good hormone, dopamine, so encourage them to try new things. Guide them in pursuing interests in areas such as sports, academics, social clubs, creative arts, hobbies, church events, or community service. Keeping them active in things they enjoy will prevent them from searching for other thrill-seeking activities that are dangerous.


Understanding these important brain changes in our teens will help us parent our kids with a deeper understanding of why they do what they do. We can recognize that they are still in the process of developing and learning and use these tips to help our teens grow to be mature and responsible adults.


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