Teens - Understanding Emotional Changes

How Do Teens Think?

Children are often self-centered (egocentric) in their thinking. This is as true of teenagers as it is of small infants. From about age 7 or 8 to 11 or 12, this egocentric thinking works in a certain way.

As children grow toward the teenage years, they begin to think in a different egocentric way. It is this new way of thinking that often causes problems in their relationships with parents.

At about age 11 or 12, children:

Thinking About Self

Teens' Preoccupation With Self
To young adolescents, the subject of greatest interest is themselves. Since young adolescents do not distinguish between what others may be thinking and what they are thinking themselves, they assume every other person is as concerned with their behavior and appearance as they are. So when Mary, for example, sees two of her girlfriends whispering in the school hallway, she "knows" they are talking about her. Or when Jeff sees his parents looking his way, he is certain they are looking at him. Therefore, the hours young adolescents spend in front of the mirror or worrying about pimples are self-admiring or self-critical. They are also satisfying the "audience" they are certain is always watching.

Parents often find teens' preoccupation with themselves rather annoying, selfish and unhealthy. This preoccupation with the self is the result of the young teen's style of thinking. This style of thinking occurs in all teens and is not deliberate. Also, teens' concern with what others think is not entirely unjustified. Young teens are, in fact, very critical of one another and pay attention to details.

Fads -- Part of Teens' Self-Image
Following fads appears to play an important role in achieving a positive self-image for teens; approval from friends can be gained by a teen who looks and acts "right". So while parents may veto some fads as too costly or unhealthy, they may be wise to permit others as that can help the teen develop self-confidence and improve the parent/child relationship.

Teens' Feelings of Uniqueness
Young teens think everyone is interested in them and that they are very special. This feeling of uniqueness is demonstrated when teens indicate that no one has ever before felt as they do, suffered so much, loved so deeply or been so misunderstood.

A teen may say, "You don't understand!" A parent may find it helpful to respond, "I may not understand, but I'm sorry you are unhappy. If you want me to, I'll be glad to try to help." In this way, the parent can express caring without having to argue over whether or not they "understand". In addition, the teen can ask for help if it's wanted.

The Magical Thinking of Teens -- "It Will Never Happen to Me"
Young adolescents believe in a kind of personal magic that will protect them from the bad things that happen to other people. Belief in this magic may make a girl think she can't get pregnant or a boy think he can safely drive in a daredevil manner. Parents who understand this kind of thinking can take steps to protect young teens from dangers they ignore.

While no perfect solution exists for the problem, many parents find it helpful to give teens greater responsibility in non-dangerous areas (like selecting clothes or determining bedtime) while retaining control over more important and potentially harmful situations. It also helps to try to keep a sense of humor!

Thinking About Values

Questioning of Beliefs
During early adolescence, when teens come to understand there exist points of view other than their own and their family's, preteens/teens may begin to question their religion, their parents' political beliefs and other values. There may be a sudden refusal to go to religious services with the family, accompanied by statements like, "I don't believe in that anymore".

Seeing the Picture as Only Black or White
At an earlier age, children can only love and hate real people and things. Now they are capable of loving and hating ideas, such as justice and dishonesty. Consequently, they may become extremely critical of parents. The parent who parks in a no parking zone for two minutes while picking up the drycleaning may be accused of dishonesty by a child. Sweeping statements may be made, such as, "Don't talk to me about honesty! You're dishonest, and I'm not going to listen to you anymore."

Allowing for Growth and Development
Many parents have found it is impossible to make teens of this age think as they do. On the other hand, it is possible for parents to simply express their beliefs and refuse to get into a debate.

Parents can respond by saying, "This is what I believe. I would like it if you would believe the same things, but you have a right to your beliefs, too. When you are older, we can discuss some of these things. In the meantime, you will go to services with the family (if that's what you want the teen to do) because I believe we should all go together. I expect you to come along and be respectful."

Most parents find they can get a teen to cooperate by allowing the teen a minor victory in the situation (such as recognizing teens have a right to their own beliefs).

Maturing of Thought
Experts believe that by the time the young person is age 15 or 16, this kind of egocentrism gradually diminishes. Usually the more teens have a chance to talk about their personal ideas and listen to those of other teens, the sooner they arrive at a mature level of thinking.

At about this time, most teens begin to re-establish the warm relationship with parents that might have become strained during the early teen years. The goal is to establish a special relationship between two adults who are parent and child.

  • have a longer attention span (30 to 40 minutes) than younger children

  • are more willing to try new things

  • are better at planning than carrying the plan out

  • believe they have the right answer

  • are beginning to think in the abstract.

Adults should:
  • consistently give their reasons for the limits set

  • allow more control in decision making for teens within limits

  • give choices and discuss decision making regularly.


Mood swings

Mood swings - emotional ups and downs of preteens and young teens -- can make these years very difficult for many parents and their children. Both parents and teens themselves are distressed by teens' emotional outbursts and have difficulty managing their feelings of distress.

Experts generally agree that the period of extreme emotionality begins at about age 11 to 12. Thirteen- to 14-year-olds are often irritable, are excited easily and are more likely to explode than succeed in controlling their emotions. Fifteen-year-olds, on the other hand, try harder to cover up their feelings and therefore are more apt to be moody and withdrawn. By the time teenagers reach age 16 or 17, they are more capable of taking a calmer approach to life and experience fewer worries and far less moodiness.

Physical Changes and Emotions

Emotional ups and downs have various sources.

Parents can:
  • make sure their teens eat a well-balanced diet

  • encourage adequate rest

  • explain the effect of hormones on emotions.

With parents' help, teens feel less worried about their feelings.

Changes in Thinking

Another source of emotionality in young teens is the strain caused by changes in their thinking. Teens are now able to think abstractly. They can reason and explore many options. They can think about and understand consequences. They now imagine "What if." These new ways of thinking make young teens convinced that:

  • what's important to them should be most important to everyone else

  • everyone is looking at them and talking about them

  • no one has ever felt like they do ("Oh, Dad, you don't understand!").

It is pointless to try to convince young teens that everyone is not watching or that the feelings they are experiencing have been shared by others. However, parents may find it helpful to tell teens they realize they are feeling badly. Parents can offer support and encouragement by saying something like, "I'm sorry you're feeling unhappy. If you would like to talk about what's troubling you, I would be happy to talk with you."

Changes in Expectations

Teens must adjust to changes in other people's expectations of them and to their surroundings. Any and all of these changes can leave teens feeling insecure and more emotional. Teens who begin to look more like adults may also be expected to behave like adults. The expectation of adult behavior can put tremendous pressure on young teens and lead to emotional outbursts.

Young teens have considerable concern about learning how to behave correctly in social situations, what to talk about and how to be popular with peers. While learning all this, teens may be extremely nervous and generally excited. Any incident which makes teens feel they've made a mistake is likely to result in an emotional outpouring complete with tears, slammed doors and general depression.

Who Makes the Decisions

Conflicts over control of the teen's life are at the root of most problems between parents and teens. Parents say, "He is not responsible or careful enough to be allowed to..." Teens say, "My parents continue to treat me like I am 10 years old."

Few things are more difficult for parents than trying to figure out how to give teens enough freedom to learn responsibility and self-reliance while still keeping control over behavior that is potentially damaging to them.

Freedom through Responsibility
Parents who begin quite early allowing children to make decisions appropriate to their age are less likely to have problems with teenagers who are demanding "Freedom now!" Children who help decide what to wear at age 5, whether or not to join Scouts at age 8 and when to do chores at age 11 are better able to make responsible decisions about behavior at age 15 and less likely to constantly demand more decision-making rights.

Excessive Control Creates Unpreparedness
Parents who have tried to control every aspect of children's behavior in their young years are rightly worried about their children's demands for more freedom in the teen years. Chances are these children are unprepared to make decisions for themselves.

Many parents find it helpful to give teens as little restriction as they can handle, while still making it clear there are certain aspects of behavior over which the parents will retain control.

Preparation for the Future

Teenagers may become aware of the importance of doing well in school for future job success. In some cases, this results in:

  • anxiety over school that was not present at an earlier age

  • worry about what to do after school is finished.

To be supportive to teens, parents can:
  • avoid pushing their teenager toward a particular occupation and instead offer support, encouragement and help as teens

  • explore their ideas

  • help a teen explore various career possibilities, expressing interest in continued education, training programs or apprenticeships

  • discuss the pros and cons of various career interests by showing encouragement without "pushing" their teen.

Emotional Storminess

The emotional storminess of a teenager is difficult for both the teen and the parents. Parents who are able to take a calm, sympathetic but firm approach find they can maintain good relationships with teens most of the time. Parents who say things like, "I'm sorry you are upset. I am getting upset too so let's talk later," find they can continue to communicate with their teens without getting ulcers in the process.

It is often helpful to remind teenagers it is easier to treat them as adults if they act like adults. And it is very useful for parents to remember that they were once teenagers themselves.


  • tend to reject domination as they seek more independence - resent criticism and put-downs even though they use them themselves - are easily embarrassed and need to be put at ease in new situations - are seeking out adult role models

Adults should:
  • provide informal, one-to-one conversation opportunities on a regular basis - avoid judging teens as "bad" when they behave immaturely. They are not adults and need to be viewed as teens trying to become adults.



Struggles Between Parents and Teens are Normal

In America today it is commonly believed parents are solely responsible for how their children "turn out." Parents are often led to think that if they do things right, they will raise perfect adults. With this kind of expectation and pressure, it's little wonder the normal struggles that occur between parents and teens take on such enormous importance.

Parents of teenagers or preteens should realize these normal struggles with fads, music and other efforts of independence occur in every family. Once they know that, they can relax more and worry less about how their children are "turning out". Chances are they will be just fine, and the challenging teen will grow up to be a responsible adult.

In the early years of children's lives, parents are the most important figures in their world. Their approval, love and support are critical to children. Consequently, much of what children do and say is aimed at maintaining that love and approval. As children get older and have more contact with people other than their parents, their behaviors and attitudes will be influenced by other people.


Establishing Independence

As teens establish independence, parents need to understand a number of points.

  • Parents are still the most important influence in their children's lives.

  • Teens are trying to become adults. One of their greatest difficulties is becoming independent while maintaining a loving relationship with parents.

  • The teen's struggle for independence becomes a real problem only when it is viewed by the teen and/or parents as a struggle for control.

Struggle for Control

When children are young, many parents maintain control over most aspects of their child's life. These parents choose their child's clothes, friends, hobbies and so on. As children grow older, they realize they can never grow into adults without having control of their lives. Consequently, teens begin to fight for control.

For teens, this struggle for adulthood is terribly risky because they risk losing the most important thing in their lives -- the love of parents. At the same time, parents may feel rejected, hurt and anxious about teens' abilities to care for themselves. Their struggle is stressful because everyone cares so greatly about each other.