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Why Is My Teen So Moody?

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Updated April 16, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Is your teen moody? If you laughed, you are truly a parent of a teen! Many parents complain about the rapid mood swings that their children have when they hit puberty. There are legitimate reasons that you have a moody teen - and it's not just hormones.

Moody Teens and Their Rapidly Changing Brains

Before the routine use of the MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), it was difficult to see what was going on inside a teen's brain. Most of what researchers had to work with were the brains of children and adolescents who had passed away prematurely. Now we can see how the brain's structure is developing with the help of MRI scans.

What we now know is that the teen brain is changing rapidly once puberty hits. The prefrontal cortex of the brain is where more complicated behaviors are regulated – more complex decision making, expressing one's personality, guiding one's social interactions. This area of the brain has a bit of a renaissance during adolescence. Connections between these brain cells occur at high rates again after being relatively stable throughout childhood. Teen brains also grow more white matter in certain areas of the brain during this time, in the frontal lobe and the parietal lobe. These areas of the brain deal with many different processes, including reasoning, judgment, impulse control.

So what does all of this brain growth and change mean? It's hard to say, but some teen moodiness can probably be linked to these changes. Because they have poor impulse control due to their brain changes, teens may express an emotion before being able to think about it or deal with it. If you have ever had a run in with a boss and you swallowed your emotion, you can probably control your emotional impulses. A teen's brain might not let him do the same thing.

Hormones and Your Moody Teen

Hormones have a role to play in mood, but it just might not be a hormone you are familiar with. It is thought that the sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone), do affect a teen's brain, possibly leading to problems with moodiness. Any woman who has had significant premenstrual syndrome (PMS) knows that hormones affect mood. Surprisingly, it isn't just these hormones that are linked to a teen's moodiness.

New research has shown that a hormone that typically calms adults down actually makes teens feel anxious. A hormone called THP (or allopregnanolone) is released in our bodies during moments of stress. For adults, this hormone has a calming effect. In teens, the release of THP causes an increase in anxiety. Anyone who has been around an anxious teen (or even an anxious adult) can tell you that anxiety can increase moodiness. If your teen seems a little stressed, she might be more likely to be cranky or irritable than the average adult. This reaction to the hormone THP tends to go away as teens approach adulthood, possibly contributing to fewer episodes of moodiness during stressful times.

Is He Moody Or Is He Depressed?

Parents often have questions about what is normal moody teen behavior, and what is something that is more of a concern. A rule of thumb is that if the moodiness doesn't last long, it's probably normal. So if your teen has a bad night and is irritable, but is good most of the week, it might be just temporary moodiness. Additionally, depression and other psychiatric disturbances have other signs other than just crankiness or moodiness. For example, teen depression may be accompanied by weight loss or weight gain, sleep disturbances, withdrawal from friends and family or talk of suicide.

If you are concerned about your teen's behavior, it is always worth a call to your pediatrician or family physician. A medical professional can help you to sort out what is normal and what is a problem, and then help you find a solution to the problem.

If your teen is moody, don't worry – it isn't permanent. As your teen's brain matures, the moodiness will fade as he or she matures into an adult. Hang in there!

Sources:

Blakemore, S-J and Choudhury, S. Development of the adolescent brain: implications for executive function and social cognition. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 47:3 (2006), 296–312.

McGivern, R.F., Andersen, J., Byrd, D., Mutter, K.L. and Reilly, J. Cognitive efficiency on a match to sample task decreases at the onset of puberty in children. Brain and Cognition 50 (2002) 73–89.

Shen, H., Gong, Q.H., Aoki, C., Yuan, M., Ruderman,Y., Dattilo, M., Williams, K., and Smith, S.S. Reversal of neurosteroid effects at á4â2ä GABAA receptors triggers anxiety at puberty. Nature Neuroscience 10:4 (2007) 469-477.

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