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Your Child's Mood Shifts

A six year old boy suddenly begins vehemently refusing to go to school, clinging, terrified to his mother. A three year old girl inexplicably balks at going outside without her mother, bursting into tears at each attempt. A nine year old boy begins nervously putting objects in his mouth. A thirteen year old girl suddenly turns nasty and rude, and withdraws from interaction with her family.

When our children's behavior suddenly changes for the worse it can leave us confused and concerned about why the change took place. Many times that behavioral change is accompanied by a change in emotional affect, or mood. Fear, anger or sadness may accompany the change. For many parents, the mood changes are the most frightening. They invoke within us an almost primitive desire to protect our children by fixing the problem in some way. Some parents go about fixing it by becoming angry at the child, believing perhaps that if he sees how angry his behavior is making them he?ll realize that it?s inappropriate. Other parents become fearful, and begin psychoanalyzing their child?s behavior, watching their child through a microscope and possibly coming up with inappropriate psychological reasons about why the child is behaving or feeling a certain way.

When your child's behavior dramatically changes, it?s important to look at several different possibilities which may have contributed to the change before you react.

PHYSICAL AND DEVELOPMENTAL POSSIBILITIES. When a mood change occurs in a child, one of the first questions to ask yourself is "Is it possible that my child has a physical ailment?" Many times when children are coming down with something, or are already ill, the physical discomfort is accompanied by a psychological change. While many parents know this, it?s surprising how often they forget to question this when their child is acting out in some way.

The second question to ask yourself, if the answer to the first is "no," is "Could this be developmental in nature?" Many parents overlook the psychological changes which accompany developmental leaps. When thinking of your child?s development, it?s helpful to note that most children?s development resembles a wave-like pattern. For a period of time, your child?s mood may appear to be on an even keel, or may even be exemplary. Then, you may notice that for the next period of time, your child appears to feel uncomfortable with himself, others, and with his environment in general. According to the Gesell Institute of Human Development, this pattern usually follows six-month cycles. For most children, the difficult periods where a negative mood is more likely to occur happen on the ? years. So, for example, if your child?s behavior suddenly changes for the worse at 5 ?, while at age 5 he was terrific, then it may be developmental in nature. We call these six month, ? year changes "disequilibrium." At age 7, this pattern switches to full year periods which alternate between equilibrium and disequilibrium, with the seven year old feeling primarily uncomfortable with himself, the eight year old comfortable, the nine year old uncomfortable and so on.