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.

In addition to these periods of general discomfort, certain moods also appear to be characteristic within certain age groups. For example, children appear to become fearful of similar things at similar ages. For example, five years old is generally not a fearful age, while six year olds are extremely fearful of things ranging from unexpected noises to unreasonable fear of their mothers dying. For the parent who is unaware of these developmental mood shifts, having an unfearful five year old turn into a terrified six year old can be disconcerting and worrisome. While there?s not enough space in this column to fully cover developmental possibilities, I highly recommend a book entitled "Child Behavior: The classic child care manual from the Gesell Institute of Human Development" by Ilg, Ames, and Baker.

ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGES. Another possible contributing cause to mood changes occurs when the child?s environment changes in some way. This may be puzzling to some parents because the mood of the child may not match the environmental change. For example, one couple who announced to their child that they were getting divorced experienced not sadness or anger from their child, but an increase in silly, immature behavior. He suddenly began clowning around in school, making jokes, playing tricks and teasing his peers and parents. Because the mood didn?t match the seriousness of the divorce, the parents had difficulty seeing the relationship between the two. In reality, however, this child was attempting to distract himself from his real feelings of helplessness, anger and sadness by shifting his mood to "happy-go-lucky" and silly. When your child?s mood changes, ask yourself if anything has changed in your environment, even if it doesn?t match the mood shift.

SOMETHING HAPPENED. If it appears that your child is neither going through an illness nor a developmental change, and if his environment has remained stable, it?s time to examine the possibility that something happened to him which is causing him discomfort, psychological pain or other distress. This is often an area into which parents have difficulty looking. From the minute our children are no longer under our watchful eyes 24 hours a day, there exists the possibility that something could happen to them without our knowledge. They can be bullied or mistreated physically or emotionally by peers or teachers, for example . While this is only a possibility, not a probability, it is one worth looking into if your child experiences a sudden inexplicable mood shift. The best way to obtain information from your child regarding the possibility that something happened is to focus SOLELY on his feelings. Remember to acknowledge his feelings slowly and hesitantly, for example "It seems like maybe you?ve been feeling a little angry lately." Do not follow this with "Did anything happen that you haven?t told me about?" Any interrogation or even referral to "facts" may lead him to either make up information which is untrue, or to shut down and refuse to communicate further.

SEEKING HELP. Finally, if you?ve looked at the obvious possible causes for your child?s mood change, and can?t come up with something concrete, or if his mood change goes on for a period of more than four to six months, or if you feel too nervous, uncomfortable or angry about it, then seek professional help. There is a limit to what even the very best of parents can accomplish, and sometimes short term counseling can benefit your child and ease your mind in the process.

For more information about counseling services call Parenting Horizons at (212) 765-2377.