Are Your Kid’s Mood Swings Normal Or A Deeper Mental Health Concern You Should Investigate?
Moods are a normal part of emotional life, signaling a combination of outlook, energy, and an overall emotional state. Mood swings are defined as noticeable changes in one’s mood or emotional state. Everybody has them from time to time; we feel happy, we feel blue.
Experiencing a mood swing every now and again is a normal part of being human We experience shifts in mood as we respond to our environment and how we think about it. Our moods can be a helpful and necessary part of problem solving and resilience.
“Mood is like a fever…a signal your system is giving you that something isn’t right”
~Dr. Michael Khan
But moods can also be disruptive, and mood swings intense. When moods disrupt your ability to carry on the responsibilities and priorities of life, they can indicate a deeper mental health concern.
When it comes to experiencing mood swings, our kids are no different. Because their evolving coping mechanisms can make them more susceptible to mood swings, and their disruptiveness.
We’re all familiar with toddler and teenage mood swings. Toddlers tend to have mood swings because they are learning to take control of actions, impulses, feelings and their bodies. Adolescents are especially sensitive to mood swings because of how their brains are developing, and their exquisite emotional sensitivity that precedes cognitive coping tools.
Yet simply knowing mood swings are a normal part of maturing doesn’t necessarily help in recognizing when they might become more problematic. To help you better gauge when your kid’s mood swings are normal, it can help to know the warning signs and behaviors associated with more problematic mood swings:
- Changing sleep patterns. All kids need plenty of sleep. Yet if you notice your child is sleeping significantly more or significantly less. It’s time to take note.Kids who don’t get enough sleep and those who sleep too much have been observed to have poorer mental health than those who get the recommended amount of sleep.
- Difficulty staying focused. A persistent problem with being easily distracted or difficulty staying focused that negatively impacts your child’s life is something to investigate. It could be indicative of something more going on.
- Frequent negative thoughts. Is your kid is beginning to have changes in thinking and beginning to say negative things about herself or blaming herself for things beyond her control? If so, she needs your support.As you talk with her about what might be driving these thoughts, you will get clearer on whether she needs more help than you can provide.
- Changes in school performance. Poor or declining scholastic performance is often associated with increased moodiness due to other factors which could include depression, anxiety, and/or substance abuse.
- Seeming overly unhappy, worried, guilty, fearful, irritable, sad or angry.
While mood swings are a normal part of growing up, periods of intense irritability, defensiveness, anger, sadness, worry, fear or guilt are worth paying attention to. Persistent anger, unhappiness, sullenness, fear, worry or guilt can be a sign of a more serious mood disorder.
- Reactions or feelings that seem bigger than the situation warrants. Overreacting to situations is typical for kids. They simply don’t have the capacity to consistently deal with disappointment. However, persistently having reactions or emotions to situations that seem inappropriate for a child of his age, could be a sign that there is more happening than a mood swing.
- Crying easily. All kids cry, even though the frequency of tears tends to diminish with maturity. Crying generally signals a need for help when experiencing intense sadness or pain or when struggling to put words to the strong emotions they are feeling. If your child cries easily and you are unable to get to the bottom of why she is so tearful, it can be a sign of something more serious.
- Showing less interest or withdrawing from activities normally enjoyed. Needing some alone time every once in a while is perfectly normal. But if you notice that your kid is consistently showing less interest in or avoiding activities or people he previously enjoyed, there is something more going on than a mood swing.Take the time to talk with him about what is going on. Once you have a better understanding you will be able to determine if he needs additional support.
- Trouble relaxing. Kids can have abundant energy, especially after consuming sugar. Yet, energetic periods are typically punctuated by more calm and relaxed ones.If your child has a difficult time relaxing and always seems to be “on,” it can be a sign of a more serious mood disorder.
- Lacking energy or feeling tired all the time. Just as having too much energy or a difficult time relaxing can be cause for concern, so too is having a persistent lack of energy or regularly feeling fatigued, especially after seemingly adequate sleep. Sleep problems could drive this extra fatigue, especially if your kid is allowed unrestricted screen time at night.
- Spending a lot of time daydreaming. Play acting and daydreaming are some ways kids have fun and begin thinking about the future. If you notice your child is spending a significant portion of her time checked out in daydreams, it is important to note. Pronounced withdrawal or preoccupation can signal mood or attention concerns warranting further help.
- Falling back to less mature behaviors. Faced with overwhelming stress, kids can turn to less mature coping tools. If you notice your kid regressing to earlier behaviors, explore what might be going on in his life that feels overwhelming. If you are unable to understand what is so stressful to him, his behavior could be a sign of a mental health problem.
- Physical aches and pains. Kids are growing. They are exposed to all kinds of bugs that their immune systems learn how to defeat. It is normal for them to feel aches and pains from time to time.However, if your child has continuing somatic complaints including headaches or digestive distress, something else may be at play. Pay attention to how related their complaints and potential mood swings might be to determine whether more help is warranted.
- Appetite changes. As with adult mood disorders, appetite changes (in either direction) can be a concerning situation that can signal a worsening mood issue. If your child is noticeably gaining or losing weight, pay attention to what may be causing it, and if you aren’t sure, gently ask her about what is going on.
This is a long and only partial list of behavior changes that might suggest your child’s mood swings could be a symptom of a deeper mental health concern. The most important questions to consider as you examine the list above are:
- How long has the behavior been going on?
- How disruptive is the behavior to your child’s life and your family?
- Is the behavior appropriate to your child’s age?
- Are there other things disrupting your child’s life (divorce, death of a loved one, a new sibling, a move, being bullied, etc.)?
Of course, the answers to these questions are immaterial if your child is facing an emergency mental health situation. Examples of these types of emergencies include self-injury, threats of suicide, violent behavior, severe withdrawal, and a sudden extreme weight change. Your child needs immediate help if he faces any of these.
Being a parent isn’t easy, and learning as you go is part of the job. Educating yourself about what is and isn’t normal when it comes to childhood mood swings can help you understand what to expect so you can better support your child as they grow and mature emotionally.
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Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash