Why is my child so moody?

“All I did was ask about the party and my daughter started crying.”

“Every day my son comes home from school in a bad mood.”

“Why does my child get so angry when plans change?”

Emotions during the pre- and early adolescent years are intense and unpredictable. One moment a child feels rage and the next she seems calm and delightful. Mood changes and bursts of temper often take parents by surprise. A simple question asked of a thirteen-year-old (“Do you think that sweater will keep you warm?”) can solicit a furious response: “Mom, you just don’t understand anything. I hate talking to you!” One eleven-year-old instantly went from happy to belligerent when his mother ran a brief errand on the way to baseball practice: “Why do you always have to stop at stores?” A twelve-year-old left for school in a bad mood because she was out of hair gel.

Everyone feels moody at times; emotional ups and downs are a normal part of life, but they’re exaggerated at this time, especially for twelve- and thirteen-year-olds. During these years, kids go through great physical, intellectual, and psychological changes, all of which affect their emotions. A child begins to think about her beliefs and values. She is capable of considering other people’s thoughts and opinions. Unfortunately, she often assumes people are thinking about her, especially in critical ways. She may act very self-consciously: “Will my freckles go away?” “Why is everyone staring at me?” “I wanted to die when I tripped on the steps at school.” She may feel inferior to her peers: “Why am I the one with horrible hair?” Such insecurity causes frequent mood swings.

As part of the normal drive for independence, a child distances herself from her parents, and in the process becomes more critical of their actions and choices. She can imagine an ideal self and family. When she or her parents fall short, she can easily become unhappy or angry.

In addition, thoughts and emotions that were suppressed or not easily verbalized during earlier years might surface now. She may become very upset about unfair treatment in the past: “You’re always so critical. I can’t be perfect!” Through bad moods and angry outbursts, she releases her frustration with her parents.

There is another reason for mood swings: life gets more complex and stressful for kids at these ages. Competitive sports, adjusting to middle school, an expanding social life, busy schedules, family conflicts, and worries about the world outside the home all affect a child’s emotions. Parents’ expectations also increase as kids get older. One thirteen-year-old said, “My parents make me so mad. They order me to clean up, go somewhere, do something, and they ground me if I don’t listen.”

These are some of the underlying causes of mood swings. And almost any event can trigger a short temper or bad mood—a low grade on a test, a teasing remark, a disagreement with a friend or sibling, any embarrassment. If a child isn’t invited to join her classmates after school, she may come home and shout at her brother. A boy who’s criticized during gym class may in turn criticize his parents’ choice of conversation at dinner.

Because many of the changes in a child’s life are not experienced on a conscious level or are subtle, a pre- or early adolescent may be puzzled or upset by her own shifting moods: “I don’t know why, but I’m depressed.” “What’s wrong with me?” “I’m sorry I get mad all the time.” There’s so much to sort through and understand that kids sometimes feel out of control.

You can help your child feel less confused by telling him what you think is causing his anger: “You didn’t expect to do poorly on the math test, did you?” “That was a tough game.” “Brooke should have invited you, too.” Share experiences from your youth: “I remember how awful it felt not having someone to talk to at the bus stop.’ “I used to be mean to Aunt Joan a lot when I was in a bad mood.”

Resist asking frequently, “What’s wrong?’ or, “Are you all right?” because your child will eventually react defensively. One twelve-year-old told her mother, “I hate when you ask me if I’m in a bad mood.”

While you should allow your child the occasional harmless outburst—everyone needs to let out some frustration—in general, don’t accept rude or disrespectful behavior. Tell her when her words are inappropriate – “I’m really bothered by your tone.” “You need to control your temper.”—she might not view her moodiness or short temper in negative ways. Let her know that her negative behavior will have consequences.

Examine and, if necessary, change your own behavior. If you have a short temper or frequently act moody, your child may be copying you. Think about circumstances that might be exaggerating her moodiness, such as difficulty with schoolwork, tension at home, or excessive pressure to excel. If you can ease some of these problems and bolster her self-confidence in any way, you’ll see an improvement in her temperament. One child began to feel calmer when his parents let him drop out of competitive swimming.

When your child is pleasant or cooperative, compliment her. In general, tell her she’s a “good kid.” And try to have a sense of humor in the face of normal pre-teen and early adolescent behavior. One parent told his thirteen-year-old, “Stop acting like a thirteen-year-old!”

Your child, like most, probably saved her short temper and moodiness for home, where she feels relatively safe and secure. At school, with friends, and with adults other than her parents, she’s most likely polite and controlled. Moodiness at home is a normal part of development. Although it may be difficult for you, try to be supportive and patient.