Just when you think you’ve got this parenting malarky down, you suddenly don’t recognize the way that young person looks, thinks or talks anymore! Suddenly, you’ve got a whole new set of parenting challenges to get your head around. Sometimes it may feel like you don’t know what to do and you’re just hoping for the best.

Whether you’re wanting to prepare for what feels like is just around the corner, are in the thick of it now, or just want to be the best mom, auntie, grandmom, or stepparent around, let’s talk teen hormones. Specifically, what happens, why teens may act in a particular way and what they most need from you.

Many changes happen in adolescence. As well as physical changes to the body (triggered by hormonal shifts), the teen brain is also developing. You may be familiar with the idea of mood swings? Well, all of this change has a big impact on your teen. Their self-esteem, body image and ability to manage their emotions all take a massive hit.

Whenever we are feeling unsettled, worried or frustrated about how our teenage loved one may be behaving, reminding ourselves of just how much is going on in their bodies is helpful. So, keep scrolling as we recap the basics of puberty and remind you of that tricky time your young person is now dealing with.

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What happens in the body during puberty?

As you’ll no doubt remember, puberty can be a confusing and awkward time in which it can be challenging to adjust to the way your own body is changing.
Here’s a reminder of some of the physical changes that can happen in puberty to girls and those born with ovaries:

  • a spurt in height
  • changes to body weight
  • the development of breasts
  • a widening of the hips
  • body hair growth
  • changes to body odour and increased sweating
  • changes to skin (such as pimples and acne)
  • some vaginal discharge
  • increase in oil production affecting the scalp and hair
  • the start of periods.

Once periods begin and become regular, the monthly fluctuations in hormones can really impact a young person’s emotions and behavior. Periods will also cause physical symptoms like cramps and bloating.

During puberty, the change we loved ones are often guilty of forgetting is the development taking place in a young person’s brain. Growth and formation is happening at a rapid rate. Neural circuits in the brain are under construction until your mid-20s, meaning different areas of the brain aren’t fully communicating with one another before this point in time. Among the last connections to be fully established are the links between areas that control judgment and problem-solving, with areas that involve emotional learning and self-regulation. Perhaps this fact helps to provide some context into why your teens’ decisions may make little sense to you!

Neuroscientists are changing the narrative around how we understand the teenage brain. Current research suggests it’s not so much about viewing a young person’s brain as immature, but more about understanding that brain development is uneven over time. This encourages a more nuanced appreciation of the contexts in which decision making takes place in the teenage years. Heightened emotional states, huge social pressures, and a strong urge for new experiences are all impacting the way a teen brain works.

Here are some key facts about how hormones affect brain development:

  • a surge of stress hormones, sex hormones and growth hormone in adolescence influence the way a young person’s brain functions and develops
  • sex hormones are linked with the production of serotonin, which is important for regulating mood and arousal
  • the body’s 24hr clock changes it’s settings, meaning teens stay awake for longer in the evenings and at night, finding it harder to wake and rise in the mornings
  • adverse events and stress in a young person’s life can affect brain development at this stage, hindering development in certain areas of the brain
  • mental health issues increase sharply during adolescence, with 1 in 4 affected by a range of mental health conditions such as depression, addiction and eating disorders.

The malleability of the adolescent brain can make it vulnerable at times. Despite this, teen brains are amazing at many things, such as getting behind a social cause. Teens’ increased interest in social connection and their greater sensitivity to rewards makes them fantastic campaigners as shown in their activism on period poverty (not being able to afford period products), climate change, racial injustice, and gun control for example.

Self esteem

There are plenty of reasons why teenage girls, in particular, struggle with their self-esteem. Changing hormones can mean how they feel about themselves varies throughout the month too.

Has anyone ever in the history of womanhood felt they’ve got it going on on the first day of their period?!

Here are just some of the factors researchers have identified as to why teenage girls may struggle with their self-esteem. It may offer food for thought as to how you can support your teen at this time:

Unrealistic and unhealthy beauty standards

Unrealistic and unhealthy beauty standards in the media which include a link in which women’s self-worth and happiness is associated with being skinny and attractive. For example, “if I look like this I will be of value, ergo if I don’t look like this, I’m not worth anything”. Teenage girls haven’t defined who they are yet, so they’re particularly vulnerable to this very powerful media message.

Peer pressure

Peer pressure and comparing to friends. For many girls, it’s not the celebrities and influencers that make them feel bad about themselves, it’s real-life comparisons between their own friends and peers. For example, “all the popular girls are skinny and pretty”.

Popular activities and interests

It’s not just about the messages young people see and hear around them though, popular activities and interests can over emphasize the value of aesthetics too. When it comes to building self-esteem in teenage girls, most experts stress the importance of encouraging the exploration of pursuits that are skill-based, such as music, theatre, sport, or volunteering. Such activities help girls to develop positive core values and a healthier sense of self.

External validation

There’s also pressure placed on girls to seek external validation rather than looking within. Can your teen list the things they excel in, or identify a positive personality trait? Or does their view of themselves seem to depend on what others think of them? You can support your teen by checking in with them about who their role models are, and see if they embody girl empowerment, strength and taking action. If they don’t perhaps make a few suggestions of some kickass women they may feel inspired by.

Pressure to be polite

The pressure to be polite, nice and kind and act as others want you to. Girls grow up conditioned to refrain from causing conflict or hurting other people’s feelings. This becomes particularly concerning when it comes to navigating sexual situations safely. It’s the number one reason girls list for engaging in non consensual or unwanted sex. Talk to your teen about setting boundaries and work on practicing things to say. Let her know she deserves to have boundaries and doesn’t owe anyone attention. In promoting the setting of boundaries your teen will be able to confidently counter the toxic narrative in which unwanted attention is portrayed as partly her fault.

It is entirely normal for teenagers to go through a period where they simply hate their body and the changes it is going through. This may go beyond perceptions of how skinny they are, or how big their boobs may be. Concerns over body image could also include:

  • Seeing their body as a collection of body parts that can be judged separately.
  • Feeling their body shape is not normal – they may see their body as ‘wrong’ compared to those represented in the media.
  • Hiding their body because of feelings of shame or embarrassment about it
  • Feeling like they are not physically attractive to others
  • Feeling conscious about birthmarks, scars, pimples or a disability
  • Feeling as though their body does not match their gender
    Sadly, it’s not uncommon for these feelings to lead to low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, obsessing over looks, isolation, loneliness, and in particular, problems with food or eating.

Body dysmorphic disorder is when someone constantly worries about flaws in their appearance, focuses on specific areas of their body and compares themselves to others. They might change their eating habits to feel more in control of how they look. This can include changing what they eat, how much they eat and how often they eat. If your teen’s eating habits or relationship with food has changed and seems to be taking over their life, they may be struggling with an eating disorder. There is help available for this and your teenage loved one can recover from issues with eating with access to the right support

How can you help your teen see through all these pressures and resist them? Well, it’s going to take more than just turning out the old phrase ‘it’s what’s on the inside that counts’.

Here are some ways you can help your teen when they’re struggling to love their body:

  1. Listen: try to seek to understand where your teen is coming from and sympathize with them. Convey what you can remember of what it’s like to go through that. Perhaps you haven’t always loved your own body but have come to learn that those feelings shouldn’t take over your life or get in the way of being you.
  2. Accept: try to show your teen that you accept your own body and appreciate what it can do. Keep a check on negative comments you make about your body shape, how clothes look on you, and how you talk about food and dieting.
  3. Support: enroll your partner and other close family members to help build your teens self esteem. Your teen needs to hear your partner and other family members compliment one another on things other than looks. Appreciating all that we are and all that we have to offer is essential here. The same goes for how they talk to your teen.
  4. Aware: try to be aware of the content your teen is exposed to. Is it sexualized or focused on an unhealthy body image? If so, ensure you are engaging in conversations with your teen about how this makes her feel. Be open to answering any questions she may have and flag any things you may be worried about with your partner or a friend to get their thoughts on the situation too.
  5. Positivity: where you can, try to help your teen relate to her body in a positive way – it’s not just about how her body looks, but what her body can do. Bodies are strong and do amazing things! Try to think about how you can teach your teen more about their body’s resilience and strength. Engaging in physical activities that she enjoys with her can be a great place to start. Whether it’s through sports, dance, or adventures outdoors, this bonding will help to show your teen the positive ways her body functions and highlight the benefits that movement can bring.

This is one of the trickier areas to get right as a parent, or as an involved loved one of a teen. So much of the approach we adopt depends on the specific situation of your teen. How old they are, what level of emotional and physical maturity they have reached and what peers they surround themselves with, are just some of the factors that need to be considered when broaching the topic of sex and sexuality with a teen loved one.

Depending on the emotional maturity your teen, you will have to constantly adapt your approach to suit their needs and their constantly changing stage of development.

It’s important to remain aware of your teen entering puberty and the sexual feelings they may be developing, whilst not pushing them to discuss things before they are ready to do so. As your teen gets older, it’s equally important to support them to express their emerging sexual identity in a healthy way, demonstrating to them you’re a safe person to turn to when they begin to explore their sexuality with other people. This can be extremely challenging for us as caregivers, but it doesn’t have to be scary and can actually bring you closer to your teen.

Despite what you may think, the conversations teens have with their parents about sex can make a big difference. Research shows it is parental influence that has the biggest impact on teens when it comes to them making decisions around sex, this is compared to the opinions of friends, peers or the media. Studies show that teenagers who talk to their parents about sex are more likely to wait to have their first sexual encounter and are more likely to use STI prevention methods and birth control when they do become sexually active.

  • Make sure to be curious – try and find out what they know and don’t know gently. If you’re able, try and understand where their information and learning stems from (e.g. school, friends, TV and movies).
  • Make sure you know the facts and options on STI prevention and birth control. 
  • Try to pick your moment carefully. In the car, after a relevant moment when watching a TV show, or via text may be useful ways to start communicating with your teen about sex. Messaging may seem strange, but it can also help to alleviate any embarrassment you or your teen may feel when it comes to starting a conversation about sex.
  • Talking regularly about sex before your teen reaches puberty will mean it’s not such a big deal when you do mention sex in their later teen years. Regular, easy conversations make much more of a difference than a big one off ‘Birds and the Bees’ type chat.
  • Try to remain relaxed and open, encouraging your teen to feel comfortable asking you questions. It’s OK not to have all the answers too.
    If you can, try to avoid overreacting if your teen shares personal information with you you weren’t expecting. They’re opening up to you now and that’s what matters! You don’t have to be fully accepting their opinion if it’s different from yours either.

Dramatic shifts in mood may be one of the cliches about teenagers, but it’s a cliche for a reason – it happens…a lot! Changes to mood can be one of the most challenging things for parents and those living with teens to deal with.
If you’ve been around the block a bit as a parent, you’ll know mood swings can happen years before the teenage phase of life and that it’s not all about sex hormones. However, there is no doubt that the rising and shifting levels of hormones teens experience, contribute to strong emotions and emotional instability.

Neuroscientists now know there is more going on in the teenage body than just shifting levels of hormones. Mood swings are also the result of teen brain cells growing and developing at different rates and in different regions of the brain at adolescence. This can mean there may be times when an imbalance occurs.

The emotional response in a teen may be all fired up, but the judgment, impulse control and self-regulation response will not necessarily have kicked in yet. Teens in this phase will often feel emotions strongly and quickly, but not have the coping strategies to calm down or rationalize in the way an older adult may be able too.

Knowing there are physiological reasons as to why your teen may be acting in the way they are can really help you to find more patience as you seek to navigate life with them. They’re not just being a (insert favorite insult here), their brain just hadn’t caught up with all those big feelings yet!

Supporting a loved teen isn’t easy and there is no perfect way to parent! In reading this resource you are already doing a great service to your teen. Positive communication takes time to remember, if at first you don’t succeed, keep on trying and eventually you will figure out the best ways to be their hormone ally at this turbulent time.

A note on mood swings: while changes to mood are a very normal part of the adolescent experience, they can also indicate bigger issues. If a teen you care about has started to exhibit clear changes or shifts to their mood suddenly, check in with them about this. Try and think about anything in their life that may have changed; perhaps at school, at home, or with friends or family. Mood changes can be the only way our teen has to communicate to us that something very upsetting is going on. Try to approach things gently and have an open conversation about their life. If you think there is something to be concerned about you can find safeguarding support here.

Here are some top tips for dealing with moody moments:

♥ Take a deep breath, and try not to take outbursts personally. Your teen needs you to be a calm and consistent presence in their life, not someone mirroring the same level of anger and irritability they are displaying.

♥ Listen to your teen and try to tune into their behavior. See things from their perspective and don’t dismiss their behavior with ‘it’s just hormones and brain development’, without being curious about what’s also going on for them in other areas of their life.

♥ Address poor behavior when you need to, but do it in a calm and respectful way. This often means after the heat has burnt out of a situation. If you can stay calm, it definitely helps to smooth out most situations that arise.

♥ Have a supportive not punitive approach. If you can handle their outbursts with love and patience, showing them you’re a safe space at all times, it has a profound impact on a teens behavior and mental wellbeing. Children that grow up being dismissed or harshly reprimanded are more likely to develop mental health difficulties.

♥ Actively support their emerging independence and autonomy rather than trying to control every aspect of their life. This can be particularly challenging if you’re worried there is something negatively impacting your teen. However, in staying calm and supportive your teen will know they can turn to you and trust you when problems arise.

♥ Help to ensure your teen gets enough sleep and takes part in positive active experiences (e.g. sports or walking outside).

♥ Equally, encourage reflective times where your teen can be calm and check in on themselves and their feelings. This could include supporting them to write in a journal, listen to music, try crafting or painting, or engage with mindfulness or meditation.