Emotion and mood swing, young Caucasian teenage girl. Different facial expressions around her head collage in carousel, isolated on white background

Not long ago, a colleague of mine, a fellow school counselor and mother, brilliantly compared raising teenagers to a game of BeanBoozled.  This is the game in which players spin a dial, get assigned a color, and then eat a corresponding jelly bean. The suspense comes from not knowing whether your jelly bean will taste like caramel or skunk spray, key lime or grass clippings. When it comes to raising a teenager, parents often tell me they experience a similar type of suspense. The same person shows up in their kitchen each morning, but they never quite know who’s living inside. Adding insult to injury, teens can be caught just as off guard by their own mood shifts. What does today hold? Strawberry-banana smoothie or dead fish? And what causes the switch from one flavor to another? 

The answer is, of course, multifaceted, but much of the explanation rests in brain development. As children age, two important systems in the brain are also growing: one that’s in charge of emotions and one that’s in charge of “executive functions”, including such skills as planning, judgment, consequential thinking, and self-regulation. The trouble for teens–and sometimes their parents, is these two systems grow at different rates. A teen’s emotional center grows earlier and faster than her rational, decision-making center, which won’t be fully wired until her early 20’s. For boys, who hit puberty on average two years after girls, brain maturity happens even later, and later still for teens with executive functioning disorders such as ADHD. Expert on teen risk-taking, Dr. Laurence Steinberg, likens the teen brain to a Ferrari without an adequate breaking system.  Practically speaking, this means that humans feel–and act on— emotions more strongly during their teenage years than they might at any other time in their lives. The good stuff feels better during adolescence, and the bad stuff feels worse. And it doesn’t take much for an emotionally-sensitive teen brain to flip between chocolate pudding…. and dog poop.

This summer, as parents and teens “enjoy” a bit more time with one another on the home front, please remember a few things.

  1. It’s normal for teens to show up in the kitchen on any given day feeling, mood-wise, like a totally different person from the day before. 
  2. It’s also normal for teens’ arrival to the kitchen to be late morning or after, as adolescence brings about a temporary shift in circadian rhythms. Many teens are basically nocturnal. 
  3. Gifted with highly reactive and emotional brains, teens bring a passion and intensity to the table that other age groups do not. Take advantage of this fact. Summer is a great time for teens to get involved with a local service organization.
  4. The imbalanced development between emotional and decision-making centers is also partially responsible for teens’ increased tendencies for risk-taking. While some risks involve ill-considered decisions, some are worth taking. Summer can be a great time to try something new, take up a project, cultivate a hobby, or make new friends–assuming it’s not a dog poop day. Then all bets are off.

Even in the best of cases, adolescence is a bumpy road. And the parent-teen “together time” offered during the summer months can be filled with plenty of unknowns. Having said that, don’t be afraid for that wheel to spin. Yes, you might wind up with a skunk-spray flavored jelly bean one day. But on other days, teens will show their funny side, have a brilliant idea, stand up for what they believe in, or do a good deed without being asked. And these are the days that make teens–and parents–keep going back for one more round.

About the Author

Samantha Straub is a licensed graduate professional counselor specializing in the treatment of adults and teens dealing with a wide range of issues. In addition to her affiliation with Waypoint, Ms. Straub is the high school counselor at Severn School in Severna Park.

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