Understanding Your Child's Moods and Anxiety
Mood shifts and anxious feelings are part of the emotional makeup of all people, young and old. Some parents may feel that their child is too moody or experiences excessive anxiety. To help parents understand what can be considered expectable and what may be too much for a child to bear, we will first share what we mean by moodiness and anxiety.
All children experience mood shifts. Sometimes influences on a child’s mood are obvious, such as excitement and elation about an experience, or sadness and disappointment over a loss. Other times, moods seem to exist without any apparent or known influence. Either way, ups and downs in moods that do not seem extreme or that do not fluctuate rapidly are within a range we would call typical or expectable.
Anxiety – feeling worried or fearful – is the mind’s way of protecting a person from danger. All people need a certain amount of anxiety, which serves to protect them from dangerous situations. Anxiety stops a person from going too close to the edge of a cliff or walking into a dangerous situation. It is essential for survival.
Sometimes, people feel anxious in situations that may seem dangerous, but are not actually dangerous. The mind perceives the situation as dangerous and triggers an anxiety signal that, in turn, might activate a behavioral response (such as fight or flight emotions; feelings of withdrawal or shyness; impulsivity; or hyperactivity). In these cases, anxiety serves to protect the person from unwanted or uncomfortable feelings.
For example, a person who is fearful of public speaking may experience embarrassment or shame in a way that is so uncomfortable, it’s intolerable and, therefore, the anxiety serves to prevent the person from being in situations that could lead to these feelings. A little bit of this type of anxiety is typical for many people and, as long as it does not become excessive, it often folds into one’s personality and becomes a matter of preference. Such a person may say, or example, “I just prefer not to give speeches to large audiences,” to avoid being placed in that situation.
When Does It Become a Problem?
When “feeling down” seems to affect a child’s ability to follow a family routine, go to school, complete assignments, participate in relationships with peers, or care for oneself, the child may need additional support or help to cope with these mood dips. Likewise, when feelings of excitement or elation are often combined with hyperactivity or impulsivity that is difficult for the child (or parent) to manage, additional support may help a family understand what triggers the child’s anxiety and why his or her behavioral responses are so strong. In some cases, avoidance or refusal of typical childhood tasks, such as going to school or separating from parents, indicates that there is a high level of anxiety interfering with the child’s ability to feel safe and comfortable in what most people would consider a nonthreatening situation.
Getting Help Early
The sooner a child receives help or intervention for significant or frequent mood swings, extreme feeling states or anxiety that interferes with daily living, the more likely he or she will be able to find ways to effectively cope with and manage those feelings. Our experience and research in the area of childhood mental health indicate that younger minds are more malleable and are, therefore, more open to help that creates a lasting impact. For more information on the services available to children and their families, visit lucydanielscenter.org.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more.