Your moody teen is heading back to school
Your teenage girl is returning to high school, and she’s moodier than ever. Dr Mark Nethercote delves into some of the reasons, and the myth that things are so much simpler when you’re a kid.
moody teen

Do you feel like your every move is being scoffed at, laughed at, sneered at, or even worse, outright ignored? You were never like this at your teenager's age! Right?


Sorry. This is one of nature’s funny little tricks.

Please don’t misread me. I’m not making light, and in no way am I saying it’s been easy. But just consider this for a moment – the modus operandi of a three year old is to prove to everyone that they are in charge of the universe. At age 12 to 16, not much has changed – they’re just better at backchatting, give you far fewer hugs, and aren’t nearly as cute and pudgy.

And it’s easy to misremember a few simple facts about being a kid. I know this, because I hear them all the time. They sound a little bit like this:

“Childhood is idyllic.”

“Things are so much simpler when you’re a kid.”

“There is far less to worry about when you’re a teenager.”

In this 24-hour world we live in, it is natural to look back on our own childhood and reflect that we were less busy and less stressed than we are now – but that doesn’t mean that we were stress-free. It’s not just our change in age, the world has sped up. Remember – if you’re stressed about your emails when you wake up and go to bed, chances are your teenager is just as stressed about their Facebook feed.

So, a few quick corrections up front:

  • Being a kid is not easy.
  • Being a teenager is not worry-free.
  • Being a teenage girl is definitely not simple.
  • And even more likely, the reason your daughter’s moods have ramped up a notch is because she’s stressed about returning to school.

So, let’s just do a quick recky into the brain of that moody teenage daughter of yours, and try to understand a little bit better about what it is to be a 14 year old in 2015.

Teen brain 101

The teenage brain is a work in progress. Despite the fact that your daughter can solve calculus, play an instrument, and answer back like she has a degree in social knockdowns, the deeper parts of the brain are still growing. And recent theories help to explain exactly why teens are more likely to undertake risky behaviours, and by extension, answer back.

The limbic system, our emotion and reward centre of the brain, develops ahead of the prefrontal cortex, which helps with planning and inhibition. If a risky behaviour has a strong emotional incentive – such as winning admiration from your peers – the limbic system is intensely activated. High teen pregnancy rates and deaths in car accidents have been attributed to exactly this brain dynamic – they know the ‘right thing’ to do, but the emotional payback from the ‘wrong thing’ is stronger. The analogy has been made that the accelerator has been put in place before the brakes are fitted.

So if this is the case, the same goes for her answering back at you. It ‘feels good’, even if your daughter knows it’s not the right thing to do. I’m sorry to have to say this, but there’s a scientific reason for all of those sneers, and scoffs, and smirks.

Have compassion

I’m not asking you to be a saint. I’m not even asking you to turn the other cheek. All I’m doing is reminding you that being a teen is hard. It’s a period of time when your body starts to look adult before you feel that way in your mind.

And I don’t think there is any one-size-fits-all approach for teens. The earlier analogy to three year olds is helpful only in illustrating that your teenager can sometimes act like they are that age. But behaviour tables and time outs certainly stop working when your child is a teenager.

So here are a few general principles that may help.

Don’t try to be her friend

Treat your child with the respect of an adult – even if they don’t do the same in return – while not treating them like an adult. You are not against her. This is not the Allies versus the Axis. But even more important – don’t try to be her bestie. Kids need parents, as much as parents need kids.

In summary: don’t try to be her friend, be her ally.

Keep boundaries consistent

One of your countless jobs as a parent is to set boundaries for your kids. The harder part is keeping them consistent. Kids of all ages push the boundaries to discover where they are. If boundaries shift, this creates uncertainty in your child’s mind. And with all of the unknowns at school, consistency at home creates safety.

Watch out for internalising symptoms

In psychological babble, when looking at behavioural issues, we speak about internalising and externalising symptoms. Externalising symptoms are easy to pick up – they are the behaviours that are unavoidable and obvious to every man and his dog. Internalising behaviours are the opposite, and as it sounds, are things that take your daughter further inside herself; anxiety and depressive symptoms.

What is fascinating is that children who primarily internalise, will often externalise as a release. If your child is snapping back, acting out, more ‘externally’ moody than before, ask yourself: Have my daughter’s anxiety levels increased? Is she stressed? Is she sad about something?

Be aware of the pressures of social media

This is an entire, vexed topic all of its own, for another day. And whether your child has a Facebook account or not, a mobile phone or not, just be aware of this: We live in a world where school doesn’t end when the bell goes, and holidays don’t mean that this digital realm stops – in fact it ramps up.

Cyber abuse and cyberbullying are insidious and they don’t clock off – just like your email account.

And finally, talk to her.

I know. Crazy, huh? Imagine!

And this is one of the true skills of being a parent – knowing when and how to push, and when to step back. Teenagers are wily, and their bulls**t detectors are deeply honed – if you suddenly go into a teen’s bedroom for a heart to heart, you’re unlikely to get a hug at the end.

But for all of her bravado, even if she doesn’t know it, she’ll have things on her mind. And even if it no longer feels like it, you still know your child better than anyone.

  • Open ended questions are good - What is she most looking forward to about going back to school?
  • Avoid negative language - Don’t ask if she’s worried or scared. Ask if there’s anything on her mind.
  • Contextualise with friends – Have any of her friends been on picked on? Is there anything her friends find difficult? If so, then ask if it’s the same for her.
  • Talk at non-confrontational times - Go for a walk. Talk in the car. Chat in the supermarket. By nature, we find personal conversation more confronting face to face. So, ask at times when this isn’t the case.
  • Offer help - You’re a parent, not a trained psychologist. If you’re worried, let your daughter know. Offer a chat with the GP. Suggest that she explores the Depression website. Consider seeing a psychologist. Mention Lifeline.

And finally, just remember – even though it feels like you have to be everything for your child, an even greater skill is knowing when you aren’t, and who can be.


Is your teenager moody at the moment?

This article was written by Mr. Mark Nethercote, a consultant paediatrician, for our sister site and was adapted for

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