Know this feeling? You’re moving through your busy day, managing the kids like a supermom. Emergency snacks, sippy cups, favorite toys — you’ve thought of it all; what could go wrong? Plenty, when a big bad mood strikes a little kid. Too little sleep and too much junk food can trigger serious mood spirals, according to Christine Carter, Ph.D., executive director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California — Berkeley and the author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. But sometimes, the trigger for the bad mood remains a mystery.
When naps and healthy snacks don’t do the trick, try a few of these 10 tricks.
1. Have a dance party. Carter suggests creating a play list with your child of favorite upbeat tunes to have ready for when a bad mood strikes.
2. Smile. Carter says scientific research shows that even pretending to smile will lift a person’s mood. She suggests a game of “hold a pencil in your mouth and smile for five minutes” to get back into a giggly groove.
3. Prevent the triggers. Carter says most kids have their own particular triggers that cause bad moods. Her own girls are often crabby when they are tired, watch too much TV or are hungry, so she eliminates those factors first.
4. Pay attention to joy. Notice what makes your kids happy and make a “happy list” of a few simple activities you can try when your kids are in a funk.
5. Validate the bad mood and use it as a learning opportunity. According to Carter, bad moods are an opportunity to help build a child’s “emotional literacy” and learn the difference between “feeling bad” and “bad behavior.” Parents should acknowledge that the child feels bad and that he has a right to do so (but not to take it out on a sibling!).
6. For tweens and teens, hormones can create havoc, so simplify and be patient. “Body changes affect emotional expectations,” says Dott Kelly, L.M.H.C., a Port Townsend therapist and the founder of Jumping Mouse Children’s Center. “While an internal shift is in charge, be patient and remind your child that the frump is a part of what’s happening. Retain your house rules of respect while staying open about the confusion that hormones create. Remain consistent as much as possible. Rather than increase demands, simplify them.”
7. Replace “screen time” with “face time,” Kelly says. Limit all screen time — TV, computer, cell phone/texting, games and the like. “We are building a culturally sanctioned habit of using screen time as a third parent,” she says. “Replace some of that time with predictable one-on-one time.”
8. Build more downtime into the schedule. Lindsey Rosen, L.M.H.C., is a parent and a Pioneer Square psychotherapist. She says if parents want to avoid bad moods, they should avoid overscheduling. “Kids and adults need downtime, or, more accurately, “imagination time” . . . [time to] let the mind wander to process the stimulation of the day and the fluctuating feelings that accompany outer events. Time to turn inward for imagining, dreaming and fantasizing not only helps kids process information, but is absolutely necessary for the development of creative problem solving, a trait that will serve them well in adulthood.”
9. Find effective ways to alleviate school-related stress. “There are certainly a lot more demands on kids today academically,” Rosen says. “When our child’s mood is affected by homework-related stress, we need to pay attention to this. Her mood is signaling a feeling of being overwhelmed. Approach this on several levels: time management — is she overscheduled? Has she has enough sleep and a protein snack before sitting down to do homework? Are these academic expectations appropriate for your child?” Rosen recommends talking to both your child and his or her teacher to find out how you can help.
10. Seek professional help if bad moods are persistent or become serious. According to Rosen, red flags can include self-isolation, stronger irritability or outbursts of anger, less impulse control, more social stress, unhappiness, change in appetite, sleep patterns and/or academic work, and self-harming behavior. These behaviors could be a call for help, which should not be ignored.
Kathleen F. Miller carries healthy snacks in her purse for her son’s low-blood-sugar moments and limits screen time to prevent “angry wookiee moods” in her otherwise delightful kids.