Adolescents’ Mood Swings and Conflicts with Parents

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

Teenagers conflict with parents, switch moods quickly, do irrational things, and in general, do not act like adults. On the other hand, they are not children anymore, either. The adolescents’ mood swings and the conflicts with parents are usually blamed on hormones. But is it really just hormones at work? Read on to find out.

Young woman sitting on a counch reading messages on her phone.
Mood swings in adolescents is a widespread thing that brings along unstable behavior and maybe conflicts with parents. (Image: fizkes/Shutterstock)

Adolescence is, on average, considered from the age of 12 to 19, i.e., the teenage years. However, it differs from person to person and can continue up to even late-20s. Until the 20th century, societies did not consider a decade-long transition from childhood to adulthood.

The Recognition of Adolescence

Two social changes in the U.S. resulted in recognition of this stage. First, people under 16 were not allowed to work full time anymore. Second, new laws made 12 years of school mandatory and extended school graduation up to 17 or 18. Going to college also postponed adulthood. Thus, a period was created after puberty that people were not children anymore but not adults either.

Teenage boy relaxing in a hammock under the shade of a tree on a tropical beach.
Adolescence began to happen with all its related behaviors and criteria when social changes prolonged the step from childhood to adulthood. (Image: Alena Ozerova/Shutterstock)

Unlike the United States, there are cultures were adolescence is not as prolonged. People get to adulthood roles, such as full-time jobs or starting a family, much quicker, and they do not show behaviors similar to American adolescents.

G. Stanley Hall was a psychologist who started the fields of developmental and educational psychology. He published a book called Adolescence in 1904, which brought in the idea that adolescents are inherently emotional and conflicted. He believed, “Normal children often pass through stages of passionate cruelty, laziness, lying, and thievery,” which might be too harsh a belief. However, there is some truth to it.

Adolescence is a time of radical emotional behaviors. Mood swings and conflicts with parents are among the most common adolescent behaviors.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Adolescents’ Mood Swings

Adolescents tend to switch moods quickly and irrationally, both positively and negatively. Research shows that negative moods rise during this period. The most common explanation is hormonal changes. Research on hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, and steroid approve the role of hormones in mood swings. However, that is not all. Cognitive and situational changes that begin with puberty also affect the mood.

First, new mental capabilities for abstract reasoning appear in adolescents. The hidden meanings in what others say and do begin to emerge to them, and they see the complexity and the ambiguity in life. The childhood innocence is lost, and the newly discovered duplicity in life erases the only-positive views.

Next, life really turns more complicated and stressful as dating and sexuality needs materialize. Adolescents face expectations on taking more responsibility for managing their own lives and situations away from home and family. New roles in school and the community are given to them, which involve more responsibility and uncertainty than childhood life.

The next reason is adults’ focus on adolescents’ future. They begin to realize that their actions can have serious long-term effects. All of these new events, roles, needs, and expectations bring along a new level of stress. Thus, it is natural that adolescents’ mood swings happen commonly under so much pressure. Do conflicts with parents also stem from the same causes?

Learn more about why do we have emotions?

Conflicts with Parents

Not just experience, research also confirms that adolescents have more conflicts with their parents, compared to children. For a few years, the conflicts are at a high level, but as teenagers move toward the late-adolescence years, the conflicts get fewer.

Mother arguing with teenage daughter who is holding a phone.
Despite the conflicts over unimportant and minor things, most parents and teenagers believe they have a good relationship within the family. (Image: SpeedKingz/Shutterstock)

Normally, parent-teenager conflicts are over minor issues such as clothing and personal appearance, dating, family rules, limitations, etc. For example, many parents do not want their teenage boys to grow their hair long, while the boys want that. This is a common but minor conflict in families.

Despite the conflicts, both adolescents and their parents believe that they have a pretty good relationship. Usually, adolescents agree with their parents on more fundamental things. Studies show that only 10% of families with adolescents experience serious difficulties of this nature. Why do conflicts happen?

Learn more about what makes people happy?

Reasons Behind the Conflicts

Is it the mood swings, the new roles, or the adolescent mind that create all these conflicts? Some parts of it can be because of the stress arising from new roles and other elements discussed above.

Much of the parent-teenager conflict seems to occur because teenagers are establishing their independence from their parents. However, parents cannot let go easily. Most of the time, it is the parents who start a conflict over something as small and unimportant as the length of the hair.

The conflicts, the hormones, the roles and responsibilities, the new needs, and the new world that emerges as adolescents enter the new period of life, all lead to the adolescent behaviors. Up to an extent, they are normal, but if things get seriously out of hand, it might not just be the adolescent issues.

Common Questions about Adolescents’ Mood Swings

Q: How long do teenage mood swings last?

Normally, adolescents’ mood swings start with puberty and last for a few years. The number of years can differ from person to person and culture to culture.

Q: What causes mood swings during puberty?

The common belief is that hormonal changes lead to adolescents’ mood swings, but understanding more that childhood, feeling responsibilities, and life’s new complexities also create enough stress for mood swings.

Q: Is it normal for a teenager to be angry all the time?

The adolescents’ mood swings should not be considered responsible for behaviors that adults can also show. If an adult is always angry, it is not normal. The same applies to teenagers.

Q: Are teenagers’ conflicts with parents normal?

Teenagers conflict with parents over nuances like the length of the hair. Adolescents’ mood swings also can cause conflicts, but as long as they agree on most major things and maintain a good relationship, the conflicts are fine.

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