Don’t Dismiss Your Child’s Bad Moods As Just A Passing Phase Effective handling your child's moods could protect them from mental health issues

It is common for parents to dismiss a child’s reactivity or non-reactivity as ‘oh she is in one of her moods” or ‘he is just going through a moody phase’. Believing in due course their child will get over/outgrow their moodiness.

This may be true some of the time but more often than not these low moods/ despondent moods/angry moods can linger and become part of a child’s personality.

A child could grow up into an angry rageaholic or a despondent depressive adult.

The Hidden Messages In Your Child’s Moods
A child moods may be indicative of some serious issues that they are unable to deal with

Though it is normal for a growing child to be moody, nonetheless prolonged anger, sadness, or irritability could be indicative of some serious problems that they are unable to cope with. Furthermore, not resolving these issues and dealing with poor mood states could be the beginning of a lifetime of mental health issues like depression, anger issues, or bipolar disorder.

Becoming Emotionally Literate

One of the most important jobs of parenting is co-regulation. It is the process wherein, we help a child process difficult emotional states by our loving presence and support.

Like most, I grew up without knowing the basics of emotions. Emotions/feelings were ignored and repressed. I was shamed and made fun of for feeling afraid, shy, angry, and this affected my mind and body. My emotional literacy was zero right into adulthood.  Thankfully, through books, I  emotionally literate and tried to be a good enough parent.

The Difference Between Emotions/Feelings/Affect/Moods

Emotions and feelings are often used interchangeably, but there is a slight difference.

Emotions are the bodily reactions that are activated through neurotransmitters and hormones released by the brain.

Feelings are the cognitive meaning we give to our emotional reactions. Feelings are how we begin to make meaning of emotion.

Affect is how we show/display our feelings/emotions. Affect can be a subtle change in vocal, facial, and gestural behavior or more obvious like jumping up with joy or slumping in sadness. Knowing your child’s usual behaviors to experiences will help you detect their sometimes hidden moods of depression.

Mood is a persistent emotional and feeling state that lasts for a longer period – probably hours or even days.  It is influenced by several factors: the environment (weather, lighting, people around us), physiology (what we eat, how much activity/exercise, sleep, and how healthy we are), and finally our brain’s predictive coding (how we see things, whether the glass in half full or half empty).

Low moods/angry moods could arise when children are unable to express what they are actually feeling. Or they feel alone and have no one to share – no one cares or understands. Feeling alone in our struggles could be a major trigger into low mood states.

Moods Influence Perceptions

Furthermore, moods influence our perceptions. How we see the world is largely determined whether we are in a good or bad mood.

When you are in a bad mood, you tend to have negative emotions such as being sad, angry, or afraid. But when you are in a good mood, you tend to have positive emotions such as joy, hope, or exuberance.

By definition, healthy people feel in control of their moods and affect. Though they experience a wide array of moods even low/negative moods they know how to deal with their emotional ups and downs and feel in control rather than being controlled.

Negative Moods Changes The Brain Neuropsychobiology

Undoubtedly, being long-term in a negative state changes the neuropsychobiology of our brain. Remember, Hebb’s ruleneurons that fire together wire together. A child’s brain becomes wired to become his mood, this is particularly true during critical periods of development like adolescence.

I remember being a happy, joyful child before my mother died. Post her death, my mood shifted to being sad and despondent. There was no one who was bothered to understand and support me during this tough time. In fact, I had to buckle up and take on responsibilities that were way beyond my years.

From a sad, lonely teen I grew into adulthood feeling utterly miserable, wracked by ongoing depression. It is only in the last year I have been able to shake that horrible low mood state I lived in.

Tuning Into Your Child’s Emotional States

Sometimes children are unaware of why they are feeling what they are feeling. Or maybe are ashamed to admit to feelings of rejection or the shame of being bullied. It could be feeling inadequate and unable to keep up with your expectations. Maybe it could be body-image issues. Or it could be undiagnosed health problems.

There are numerous reasons why your child’s mood may be off.  Nonetheless, don’t try to force them to share what they are feeling. They may not be ready or they simply don’t want to admit what they perceive as a flaw or weakness in themselves.

Do not add more salt to their wounds by shaming them or forcing them to be grateful or positive.

As a parent, all you can do is be attuned to their mood, try to assuage their pain, and…

 Gently Prod A Shift In Mood

The sooner one is able to shift from low mood states to a more calm state the better our long-term mental and physiological outcomes will be.

1) Modeling Emotional Expression

One of the reasons why I suppressed my feelings is because that’s what my mother did. She stoically did not express any negative feelings which probably killed her.  Thus, it became second nature to suppress my feelings.

I did not make this mistake with my son, there were times I did overdo my emotional expression but my son grew up free to express his true feelings. However, this does not mean that you do the emotional dump on your kids.

Just letting them know that you feel angry or sad about something and not with them will stop them from internalizing your bad moods.

2) Giving Them Space To Feel and Express

Give your child the space to be, feel and express and it begins when they are little babies. Every child gets upset and will throw a tantrum. Don’t retaliate or shame them. Be present, patient, and listen. Try and decipher what they are trying to convey instead of judging and criticizing.

If they grow up in this climate of acceptance, they will never feel they have to hide what they are really feeling. Feelings expressed don’t fester into bad moods.

3) Contact Comfort – Hug, Cuddle, Kiss, Tickle, Tousle

Loving touch is critical for our well-being. It releases oxytocin, the love hormone which inhibits the release of cortisol. It makes us feel safe, connected and understood.  A caring touch conveys more than a thousand words.

Even though some kids, particularly teens may recoil when we hug them, there are many subtle ways you can give contact comfort to your upset child – tickle them casually or tousle their hair, or offer to give them a pedicure.

4) Give Them The Language

Very often when children don’t have the language to express what their interceptive bodily states are signaling. This not-knowing keeps stuck. Empowering them with the knowledge and language helps them move past the stuck feeling quickly and easily.

Get them the Wheel Of Emotion created by Robert Plutchik. Make it a regular practice to discuss their day and what they felt about people and situations, Why did their friend, Joey make them feel disgusted? Or why did their teacher, Ms.Brown make them feel angry?  A child who grows up feeling okay with having feelings will not have to repress them.

Robert Plutchik, Wheel of Emotions
Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotion – There are 8 Core Emotions

5) Reframing The Situation

Teach your children the skill of reframing a situation. It is normal to look at the situation from one’s narrow mental bias and develop blind spots about the actual situation. Reframing will help them change their perception where they feel stuck or confused and see other alternatives and solutions.

Talk with your child and teach/show them how to shift their mindset in order to view a situation, person, or relationship from a slightly different perspective.

Roberto Benign’s award-winning movie Life is Beautiful perfectly conveys how a parent can transform and change a child’s view of a situation. By shifting his son’s perception from hopelessness to one of adventure, the father shields his son, from the horrors of their depressing circumstance.

6) Restoring Their Body Budget – Diet, Exercise, and Sleep

In her book, How Emotions Are Made, neuroscientist, Lisa Feldman Barrett,  introduced the concept of the body budget as being crucial for our emotional well-being. What we eat, how well we sleep, and how active we are, play a critical role in how we feel both physically and psychologically.

So, the most important thing you can do to improve your child’s mood is to ensure they eat healthy food,  get adequate sleep, and get enough exercise.

7)  Novelty – Change Of Scene

Introducing impromptu fun and novelty is a sure way to change your child’s mood. According to the cognitive scientist, Dr. Laurie Santos,  novelty triggers the release of dopamine. There is a close connection between novelty and happiness.

My son went through some real stress-filled times. Due to his learning disorder, dyspraxia, he struggled at school and sports which undermined his self-confidence. The one thing that did not keep him stuck in that state was our regular trips whenever we had a vacation. It was nothing fancy but the change helped take his mind off his inadequacies and shifted his mood to feeling confident. Seeing new places and trying different food really shifts your mental state.

Moreover, these holiday memories have become part of who he has become.  Our memories are the building blocks of one’s personality – the core of who a person is. They are a person’s reference point  A good memory is like a magic button that you press play to get your mind back to a positive reset.

8) Inspirational Stories/Movies

The other way to change our thoughts and beliefs is through reading and watching inspiring stories. How another human being overcame hurdles and limitations to achieve success.

Stories activate our mirror neuron system, the human mind doesn’t make much distinction between encountering an experience in reality and reading or watching for entertainment.

According to neurochemist Paul Zak: “Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds. But in doing that, they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry.”

9)  Humor – Looking Through The Funny Lense

Humor not only changes our mood but also allows us to view our adversity on a lighter side. Studies have proven that humor decreases your negative moods, depression, anxiety, and stress.

Furthermore, humor increases the release of endorphins and dopamine in the brain. That is why laughter is touted to be the best medicine.

However, do be tactful and astute when making light of things that are troubling your child. It could seem dismissive and invalidating. This will only push them further into a dark place.

My go-to when I am down is re-watching a really, silly, funny movie or serial. Watching down on their luck comedic antics of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy is a sure way to change my state of mind.  Life is definitely not that bad.

Raising Emotionally Agile Kids

Everyone has their moods, and kids are not exempt. There will be times when your child will feel self-doubt, sadness, shame, fear, or anger which are beyond their control. The key though is learning not to get stuck in a bad mood for too long and this requires emotional agility.

Emotional agility is a skill that helps one shift through different emotional states with ease and flexibility. This does not work for me, so what are my other options mindset.

With this kind of growth mindset, your child will look at problems as opportunities that will lead to better outcomes, success, and happiness.

Image Source: PixabayWikipedia

Ref: What is mood? A computational perspective

Further Reading:

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