If you have an adolescent, you are not surprised to hear they have unpredictable emotional ups and downs. Why now? Here are three different reasons your adolescent struggles with his/her emotions.
The first reason is because their brain is going through a very intense time of development. This is changing the way they think about themselves, their family, and their social world. They are struggling to cope with these changes and the feelings that come from them.
The second reason is that for a few years during adolescence, puberty happens. Puberty hormones run high and also have an impact on the brain as well.
The third reason for unexpected emotional ups and downs in your adolescent is not often talked about. It happens through a different pathway called the “fight or flight” response of our nervous system. The way it works is that fear, anxiety, stress or excitement causes the adrenal glands, located on top of the kidneys, to pour adrenaline into the bloodstream. Within a few minutes, adrenaline orchestrates a rush of signals to vital organs like the heart, muscles and even our brain to initiate a quick response to the stress. The heart rate goes up, blood pressure increases, pupils enlarge and there is a shifting of blood to vital organs and away from less necessary parts of the body like the skin. The body’s metabolism ramps up to increase glucose in the bloodstream to supply the brain and muscles, so you have the energy to get away from the danger.
This response has a big impact right away and for at least an hour after the stress is gone. Not too many adolescents are running away from bears today, but they are playing very realistic video games, scanning their phones to see what their friends (and frenemies) are saying about them, stressing about school issues, and even conflicts with you as their parents.
The “adrenaline rush” as it is called, is designed to give you energy to run away from the stress. If this stress is not one they can run away from, the body has all of this extra energy with no place to go. Sadly, it can lead to anxiety and irritability.
This is why is it very helpful for adolescents to be involved in lots of outdoor activities and sports, if possible. They go in and out of stressful situations throughout the day and exercise helps to fight the anxiety and irritability. It is also beneficial if you can inspire them to do some deep breathing exercises and mindfulness exercises, but adolescents are usually a little too impatient to try these very useful tools for stress reduction.
Try to put yourself in your adolescent’s place. They are being hit with intense body responses to stress all day long and into the night from all three sources: brain development, puberty hormones, and adrenaline rush. When they are showing signs of emotional ups and downs, rather than becoming frustrated with them and adding to their stress, try calming the situation down and talking to them at a more peaceful time. This will help them hear what you have to say and help you not to have your own “adrenaline rush!”