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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Whiteside

Surviving Teen Tantrums



It is difficult navigating the world of adolescents especially when faced with the emotional rollercoaster that comes with it. One phenomenon that often catches parents off-guard is the teenage tantrum. These extreme emotional outbursts can leave parents feeling perplexed, defeated, frustrated, and annoyed. Many of my clients state they feel like they are "walking on eggshells" when interacting with their teen. Let's explore the neuroscience behind this "teenage tantrum" phenomenon and shed some light on this perplexing behavior.

Understanding the Teenage Brain:

In my previous blog, Unlocking the Mysteries of the Teenage Brain, I go into depth about the complex development of the teenage brain and corresponding behaviors. We find that, in order to comprehend why teenagers experience emotional outbursts, it's essential to understand the changes happening in their brains during adolescence. The brain undergoes significant transformations during this period, particularly in regions responsible for emotional regulation and decision-making.

Development of the Prefrontal Cortex:

The prefrontal cortex, located at the front of the brain, is responsible for executive functions such as decision-making, impulse control, and emotional regulation. During adolescence, the prefrontal cortex undergoes a process called synaptic pruning, where unused connections are eliminated to make room for more efficient neural pathways. This pruning process continues into early adulthood, leading to improvements in cognitive and emotional control. To put it bluntly, the part of the brain that assists with impulse control, regulation and rational decision-making is under construction and not fully available to individuals until around the age of 25.

The Limbic System and Emotional Intensity:

The limbic system, a complex network of brain structures, plays a crucial role in processing emotions. The amygdala, a key component of the limbic system, is particularly active during adolescence. It is responsible for processing emotional stimuli and triggering emotional responses. The heightened activity of the amygdala during teenage years can lead to increased emotional intensity and reactivity. Basically, Teens are highly sensitive to cues they are being judged or criticized and experience all emotions at a more intense level than adult counterparts.

Hormonal Changes:

Adolescence is also characterized by significant hormonal changes, including an increase in sex hormones such as testosterone and estrogen. These hormonal fluctuations can further contribute to emotional volatility and intensify the emotional responses experienced by teenagers. Although hormones can play a role in emotional dysregulation, they often get most of the blame for teenage outbursts, when brain development is just as responsible.

The Perfect Storm: Triggers for Teenage Tantrums:

Now that we understand some of the neurobiological changes occurring during adolescence let's explore what triggers teenage tantrums. While every teenager is unique, certain common triggers can lead to emotional outbursts:

Stress and Overwhelm: Teenagers often face mounting academic pressures, social challenges, and the need to establish their identity. These stressors, coupled with the ongoing brain development, can overwhelm their capacity to regulate their emotions, leading to tantrums.

Peer Influence and Social Dynamics: Adolescents are highly influenced by their peers, seeking acceptance and validation from their social groups. The fear of rejection, conflicts with friends, or feeling left out can trigger intense emotional responses.

Frustration and Lack of Autonomy: As teenagers strive for independence and autonomy, conflicts with authority figures, perceived limitations, or restrictions can elicit tantrums. The desire for control over their own lives can sometimes clash with parental expectations, resulting in emotional outbursts.

Supporting Teenagers through Tantrums:

Much like understanding toddler tantrums, teenage tantrums call for a basic understanding of the strategies that can assist with calming and learning:

Maintain Calm:

During a tantrum, it's crucial for parents to stay calm and composed. Reacting with anger or frustration may exacerbate the situation. Instead, model emotional regulation and provide a stable presence. Take deep breaths and remain patient.

Example: Parent, "I am a little taken aback right now and need a moment to compose myself before we talk further."

Validate Feelings

Let your teenager know that their emotions are valid and understandable. Avoid dismissing or trivializing their feelings. Acknowledge their frustrations, fears, or anger, and empathize with their experience. Validation can help them feel understood and supported, reducing the intensity of the outburst.

Example: Parent, "I can see you are disappointed that you will have to miss the party. I know you were looking forward to going."

Teach Coping Strategies:

Help your teenager develop effective coping mechanisms to manage their emotions. Encourage them to practice deep breathing exercises, engage in physical activities, or express themselves through creative outlets like journaling or art. These strategies can help them regulate their emotions and find healthier ways to cope with stress.

Example: Parent, "When I feel disappointed, it helps me to get it out by writing or journaling. Do you think this is something you would be willing to try?"

Open Communication:

Create a safe space for open communication with your teenager. Encourage them to express their thoughts and emotions without judgment. Active listening and empathy can foster a stronger parent-child bond. Often, teens are not looking for an answer, but for understanding and validation. Discussions should occur when both parent and teen are in a more regulated state and able to respond relatively reasonably and rationally.

Example: Parent, "I want us to talk about this more. How about we both take some time to calm and talk about this in 20 minutes?"

Provide a Safe Space: 

Create a safe and non-judgmental environment where your teenager feels comfortable expressing their emotions. Encourage open communication and let them know that you are there to listen and support them. Avoid criticizing or belittling their emotions, as this can worsen the situation.

Set Boundaries:

While it is important to validate their feelings, it is equally important to establish boundaries for respectful behavior. Clearly communicate your expectations and limits, emphasizing the importance of expressing emotions in a healthy and respectful manner.

Example: Parent, "I want to talk to you more about this, but you continue to call me names. When you are able to speak to me respectfully and in a calm tone, we can resume this conversation."

Foster a Supportive Network:

Encourage your teenager to build a supportive network of friends, mentors, or counselors they can turn to when they need someone to talk to. Having a strong support system can be invaluable during times of emotional distress.

Encourage Self-Care and Balance:

As a professional with a busy schedule, I am often shocked by the schedules held by teens. To be honest, If I had to go into a two hour practice at 6:00 am, then work for eight hours while being introduced new material daily, followed by more work at home including studying for a quiz/test, while also completing a research paper and maintaining a social life, family life, and keeping up with my favorite shows, I would be a ball of emotions. Much like adults, teens can become dysregulated when stress feels unmanageable. Help them audit their daily schedules and prepare for more demanding periods of time (SATs, ACTs, Finals, Try-Outs, College Applications, etc). Reassure them that it is okay to take things off of their plate, prioritize, and set limits on their time. Allow them time to recoup without judgment and audit the additional demands that you may be placing on them during a potentially stressful time.

Remember, supporting your teenager during tantrums requires patience, empathy, and understanding. This period in your life, and in theirs, will pass. Although this may be a stressful time for teens, they are hitting important developmental milestones. Parents can help their teenagers navigate through these challenging moments and develop healthy emotional regulation skills that transform teens into healthy and stable adults.

Moving Forward with Serenity:

If your teenager's tantrums are frequent, intense, or impacting their daily functioning, it may be beneficial to seek professional support. Professionals at Serenity can provide guidance, therapy, or additional strategies to help your teenager navigate their emotions more effectively. Simply reach out to us at (812) 345-2205 or explore our services

Together, let's embark on a path of empowerment and serenity.

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