Riding the Teenage Mood-Storm

6-29-15 Edwards-Hart, Tim HS


The teenage brain is under constant renovation.

Beginning from about age 10, the human brain starts a massive process of rewiring that continues until around age 25. While this results in a more efficient and complex adult brain, all that rewiring means that teenagers simply do not have the same ability as adults to regulate their emotions.

So if you consider that difficulty regulating emotions is one of the most common expressions of both ADHD and stress, then a stressed ADHD teenager in the house is the making of a perfect mood-storm.

Here are three tips to safely ride that storm and reduce the intensity of the moods that follow.

Tip 1: Stay calm and follow a plan

The key principle for responding to a teenage mood-storm is “walk away.” While this may sometimes involve physically leaving the room, it’s even more important to emotionally walk away. That is, to temporarily set aside your own emotion, even if for just a few minutes. This avoids the argument-by-emotions trap, where each person responds emotionally in a way that upsets the other, who responds emotionally in way that upsets the other… and so on. The argument-by-emotions trap creates an escalating cycle that rarely ends well.

The alternative is to stay calm and follow a plan. Ideally, this plan would be negotiated with your teen ahead of time, but a parent-only plan is better than none at all. Things to consider for your plan include:

  • how to stay calm yourself (challenging in the face of a mood-storm)
  • prepared consequences for both unacceptable and desirable behavior
  • time to cool down, and
  • an opportunity to problem solve solutions afterwards.

Of course, this is all easier said than done, which is why planning ahead is so important. If you have ever lived in a tornado prone area you will know that it is easier to calmly follow a plan when a tornado hits than to frantically make one up in the panic of the moment. Take a moment today to write down some ideas for how you can stay calm and respond more effectively during your teen’s next mood-storm.

Tip 2: Focus on what matters

There are so many things that trigger teenage mood-storms that it can seem overwhelming, but they are not all of equal importance. Compare the relative importance of the following:

  • setting the table vs feeding the dog
  • an untidy bedroom vs passing the next geography test

Focus on the issues that matter, and let the other ones go. Personally, I’d rather close a teen’s bedroom door than argue about the mess on the floor, but every family has their own priorities. By identifying what matters in your house you can decide whether it is worth continuing when you see a mood-storm brewing, or if it is more prudent to let the issue go. Remember, “If it doesn’t matter, it really doesn’t matter.”

This can be a challenge for parents. If you have trouble letting go, a coach or therapist can help you focus on what is most important in ways that benefit you and your teen.

Tip 3: Catch them doing something right

I haven’t worked with an ADHD teen yet who hasn’t tried to do better. Typically, by the time they see me, they have learnt to expect negative feedback from authority figures (“Stop it!”, “Why did you do that?”, “How many times have I told you…”). They’re often exhausted, dispirited and despairing. No wonder they’re irritable.

The solution is simple: focus on what they do right instead of what they do wrong. Evidence from family therapy and positive psychology suggest aiming for a positivity ratio of 5:1. That is, five expressions of positive emotion (praise, love) for every negative (criticism, punishment). Although this is a simple idea, it can sometimes seem difficult to find positive things to say. Initially, it may even feel forced. Yet is worth persevering: the more you practice, the more positives you will notice and the more positives there will be to notice. This is possibly the most effective approach I know for improving adolescent wellbeing and parent-teen relationships.

Bonus tip: Maintain perspective

Sometimes the intensity of a teenage mood-storm can be overwhelming, and the things they do or say can be shocking. Yet if you ask an ADHD teen why they are so upset, the two most likely responses are either, “I don’t know” or some convoluted explanation that boils down to “It’s not fair!” While both responses are probably true, at least from their perspective, they can seem wildly out of proportion to the behavior on display.

This is when it is important to consciously remind ourselves that teenagers don’t deliberately inflict their moods on others: the sulking, name calling and door slamming are not the product of some cunning scheme. In fact, teenagers are often more confused and overwhelmed by their moods than their parents, and often feel ashamed of their behavior.

By taking steps to change how we respond, and allowing for our own mistakes, we are modeling for our teens how to manage intense emotions more effectively. The long-term outcome is more confident, independent, adults who have good relationships with their parents. That’s something to look forward to.

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