One moment your daughter is laughing happily along with you and her siblings, participating in a fun family conversation around the dinner table as you all retell a hilarious story from the kids’ childhood that’s become family legend.
A few minutes later, without you realizing what’s happened, she’s furious about something. Her smile has dropped, her eyebrows are frozen in a sarcastic arch, her arms are folded, and she is making it clear to all that she’s NOT amused. Her dad jokingly tries to cheer her up, and she snaps. So fast you almost miss it, there’s a back and forth, and by the time it dawns on you that wow, she is seriously mad, she’s already stomped away from the table and slammed the door to her room. You can hear her crying all the way from the dinner table.
Ah, mood swings.
As our kids develop into adolescents, they’re experiencing physical, biological, social, emotional, and mental changes. A family can experience this as if a teen is now on an emotional rollercoaster. Their moods are strong, intense, and likely to rapidly shift in ways they’ve never felt before. Try to remember that your teen is experiencing major hormonal shifts, as well as dealing with new pressures when navigating school, friendships, family, romantic relationships, and physical changes while going through the normal developmental process of trying to establish their own identity and independence.
But while it’s all well and good to remember that this is normal, it can also be really hard emotionally on a parent when your teen is swinging between highs and lows. Our teen’s mood swings put us on a rollercoaster as well. In that spirit, we have a few suggestions for how to cope with your teen’s mood swings, inspired by Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), that we think are useful for any parent:
Start by noticing your own distress.
Before you jump in and start trying to help your daughter deal with her emotions, notice what’s going on for you. Think about that scenario where your daughter has stormed to her room, crying in furious anger in the middle of a perfectly lovely family dinner. In that situation, do you find your own heart racing? Maybe your emotional intensity has gone way up, and you’re feeling activated, with the urge to leap into action to start problem-solving ASAP. (This is really common when we feel distress around the pain of someone we love!). You may simultaneously want to figure out what made your daughter so upset and help her understand that it really wasn’t that big of a deal; feel angry at her dad for offending her and feel defensive of him as your well-meaning coparent; want to make her pain go away because it’s so hard to know she’s hurting and feel annoyed about the way she ruined a lovely family dinner. Whew. Try to pause and just notice all the emotions going on inside of you.
Get out of “emotion” mind.
When we can’t think straight, we’re in “emotion mind.” Our emotional system gets activated by seeing our child in pain and our intense emotions are urging us to fix the problem and make their distress go away. But if we act from emotion mind, we may end up making the problem worse, because we don’t have access to our wisest self that makes decisions informed by reason as well as emotion. So try managing your own distress to shift away from emotion mind, before you charge into your daughter’s room to help her with hers. How to get to that place where you can think wisely? Here are a few suggestions to help yourself pause before acting:
Breathing exercises. As syrupy as this may sound try taking several deep belly breaths. It can help to put a hand on your chest and a hand on your belly, and try to breathe so that the hand on your belly is the one rising and falling with your breath. Exhale for longer than you inhale. Try counting to 4 as you breathe in, and 8 as you breathe out. This will activate your parasympathetic nervous system and help you calm your body down. It’s easy to poopoo this one, but if you are willing, it is one of the most reliable and consistent techniques we always have to help us shift.
Change the temperature. Intense emotions can make our faces and body rise in temperature. Try splashing cold water on your face, or taking some ice cubes from the freezer to hold in your hand. This can work very quickly to help you feel cooler and calmer, bringing down your level of emotional intensity.
Weigh the pros and cons. Try writing down or talking through the pros and cons of how you might respond. In this example, you might take a moment to talk through the pros and cons of following your daughter into her room now, or waiting until after the meal is finished and cleaned up. No matter what you decide, even taking the time to weigh the decision will help you wait out some of the emotions and take action from a more collected place rather than in immediate response to your first urge.
So you’ve taken a moment to be mindful of and notice your own distress. You’ve used that knowledge and decided to get out of your emotion mind, by using a skill like belly breathing, splashing cold water on your face, or talking through the pros and cons. Of course you still have plenty of feelings about your daughter crying in the other room, but you’ve settled down a bit and feel like you can think clearly.
Focus on what’s in your control. Remember that your daughter’s emotional experience is not in your control. Her thoughts and feelings aren’t something you can change - as much as you might want to! You can’t make someone feel happy when what they’re experiencing is sadness or anger. Try to acknowledge what is true about this moment - what your daughter is experiencing, thinking, and feeling - without value judgments like “should” or “should not.” Trying to convince her to feel better (with “your dad was just joking!” or “this isn’t that big of a deal!”) can come from the most well-meaning place, but make her feel misunderstood and even more upset.
Try validating. While you can’t control or fix your daughter’s distress, what you can control is how you respond. One of the most helpful responses to a mood swing is to join your teen in what they’re feeling and validate their experience. In a nutshell, validation means acknowledging that someone’s experience is their experience. Validation doesn’t have to mean you agree with someone, or that you approve of their reaction. But it does mean that you recognize that they are genuinely experiencing reality the way they are describing to you. To take it to the next level, you can also recognize that based on someone’s context or past experiences, what they are experiencing makes sense to you. So with your crying daughter, this can look like getting really curious about what she is experiencing. What happened at the dinner table that made her so upset? Whether or not you agree with how she interpreted the situation, can you recognize why it might make sense for her to feel so angry and sad based on what she’s describing? Try saying, “It makes sense that you feel so upset right now.”
Finally. You’ve made it!
You managed your emotions and helped your daughter manage her own - by acknowledging, validating, and sitting with those emotions. Now you are both out of your emotion minds, and there is space for problem-solving if necessary. Sometimes you may not even need this step, and weathering a mood swing is really just about getting through the steps above. But if the cause of the distress still needs to be addressed by something like an effective conversation, we give you full permission to join your daughter in a discussion about what might be useful next steps.
The Full Bloom Project is a research-informed body-positive parenting resource—designed by parents, for parents founded by Zoë Bisbing, LCSW and Leslie Bloch, LCSW-R, both psychotherapists based in New York City. Click here to purchase a copy of The ABC’s of Body-Positive Parenting.