Embracing teenage emotions

Embracing teenage emotions

Woodstock Principal Dr Jonathan Long shares three simple steps to helping teenagers through what can be an emotional time.

According to Steven Wood, Professor of adolescent brain development and mental health at the University of Birmingham, teenagers have more emotional range than adults. This is often seen in the ups and downs of teenage mood swings – and is perfectly normal, says Professor Wood. The cause is a particular combination of hormones which rewire the emotional processing areas of the brain. It is these hormones which make the teenager’s brain more prone to arguments, sulking or anger. Learning how to live with a teenager’s moods is a skill every parent and every school staff member has to acquire. We all have days when we feel down – but there is something uniquely challenging in coping with adolescent moodiness!

A Dutch study followed 500 boys and girls between the ages of 13 and 18 and found that the girls’ emotional maturity and ability to consider other people’s perspective started to increase at age 13. On the other hand, the boys didn’t gain this ability until around age 15. In fact, boys between the ages of 13 and 16 show a temporary decline in “affective empathy”, the ability to recognize and respond to other people’s feelings. Just like the mood swings which professor Wood studied, this is a perfectly normal part of a boy’s development. Mood swings and declines in empathy will disappear, with time, as teenagers mature. Until then, experts tell us there are certain things we can do to help our children regulate their emotions well. Here’s a summary:

"Learning how to live with a teenager’s moods is a skill every parent and every school staff member has to acquire."

ACKNOWLEDGE that we are role models

Research consistently shows that the most important role models in a teenager’s life are their parents and other adults. It won’t always feel like that though. Ironically, when a teenager seems to need you least, they actually need you the most!

Children take their cues from their parents and teachers. How we handle our emotions and our down-times will have a huge impact on how they learn to handle theirs. Our day-to-day interactions with children are far more important than we realise. It’s easy to think that the best opportunities to instill the right attitudes and values in a child are when we formally ‘lecture’ or discipline them. But this is a mistake. It is how we are in our routine daily interactions with children which provides the best possible opportunity for their growth. It is the example and attitudes of adults which has the greatest influence. The renowned psychologist Carl Jung put it brilliantly, “Children are educated by what the grown-up is and not by his talk.”

BUILD self-discipline

Adolescence is a time in life when young people struggle to find the right balance between independence and responsibility. Moodiness can be a side-effect of this struggle. At Woodstock we work to help young people make honest and accurate self-assessments and to be part of finding solutions to problems. This can be a painful process – but it is absolutely vital if we are to achieve our potential. Properly supported, the teenage years can provide the ideal opportunity to learn from failure! With care and support there is always the opportunity to learn lessons which are more painful and risky later in life.

CONTROL screen time before bedtime

There is an interesting link between teenage moodiness and the use of electronic devices at bedtime! Dr Ian Smith, Director of the Sleep Centre at Papworth Hospital in the UK, is convinced that the type of light given off by LED screens is one of the strongest signals to setting the body’s internal clock. He advises avoiding screens before going to bed to prevent the restless sleep patterns which increase moodiness. This is a key reason why we do not allow students to keep their devices overnight. It may not always be a popular rule, but it is an important one designed to support our students’ mental, emotional and physical well-being.

Dr Jonathan Long, Principal, Woodstock School

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