What are Mood Swings in Childhood?
Mood swings in childhood are rapidly shifting emotional states. A child may go from happy to sad to angry to exhausted in minutes. When mood swings are an issue, these shifts may occur every day or multiple times per day.
You may feel like your child’s anger is going from 0 to 60 in seconds. It might seem like the slightest thing goes wrong, and your child goes into orbit. One minute your child is silly and happy, and this mood can swing to excessively angry or sad in a short amount of time.
“Your child may seem like one person one minute and someone entirely different the next. So you may catch yourself saying, ‘I wonder where my child went and how I can get him back?’ It’s like a moving roller coaster that you keep trying to get off of, or at least slow down.”
It is normal for children or teens to have fluctuating moods sometimes. Throughout childhood, there are times when a kiddo’s moods may be in flux. However, there are certain kids for whom emotional regulation is extremely difficult.
They may feel trapped in a prison of rapidly fluctuating moods. A pattern may emerge by which they feel amazing one day like they can conquer the world, followed by extreme sadness the next day.
Children with these challenges can be incredibly challenging to parent. As a result, in the most intense cases, families feel trapped in their own homes and may feel afraid of their children.
One parent explained, “We feel like we’ve been thrown into a tornado that is big, black, and powerful.”
Symptoms of Mood Swings in Children
- Acting like Dr. Jekyll and then Mr. Hyde: your child’s mood changes rapidly
- Has explosive temper outbursts: your child displays intense emotions quickly
- Makes your household feel like you are in the eye of a storm: everyone is tiptoeing around your child as to not upset them
- Shifts in and out of silly moods without warning: your child acts very impulsive, giddy, or silly and then is irritated and sad
- Does dangerous things without thinking: your child is impulsive
- Can accomplish anything and everything: your child thinks they can fly or that they are a famous rock star
- Elevation and creativity: your child has hours or days of energy and directed creativity into projects, artwork, writing, or organization
- Sleep differences: your child may require little sleep or seem tired often. You may have always noticed that it is very difficult for your child to fall asleep or stay asleep
Causes of Mood Swings in Childhood
Typical phase of development: when children are very young, mood swings are not unusual. In a toddler or preschooler, you may notice that their moods shift suddenly and without warning. Children of this age are developing emotional awareness, independence, and coping skills. Your young child may experience mood changes according to adjustments in sleep, eating, schedules, and interests. You may also notice new phases where your child is temporarily moody during a developmental change. For example, as kids approach puberty or a big change like a new school, they might be moody for a bit. The key here is that mood swings are manageable. This level of mood swings is not putting your home and family in turmoil or getting your child kicked out of school.
Depression: when children are depressed, it can show up as irritability. Parents need to be on the lookout for a kiddo who seems constantly sad and grouchy. These kids may have a sense of impending doom. It’s like nothing is ever quite right. Kids with these challenges do not seem to be reacting directly to events that have happened but rather there is a pervasive sadness regardless of what is going on around them.
Traumatic events: a child who has experienced significant loss or trauma may have excessive anxiety and feelings of sadness that can lead to fluctuating moods.
Mild trauma experiences (trauma with a small ‘t’): ‘small t traumas’ are seemingly small negative experiences in childhood. Recent research suggests that children may experience what adults consider mildly distressing events as traumatic. For example, children who really like their autonomy may be extremely distressed over a strict parenting moment or an incident of getting in trouble with the teacher at school. In the course of childhood, almost every child will experience some level of heartbreak or significant distress, such as the loss of a pet, grandparent, or a move across town. In some children, you will see dramatic emotional shifts in response to these life events.
Significant trauma experiences (trauma with a capital ‘T’): ‘big T traumas’ are events that cause a significant threat to a child’s safety or sense of self-worth. Trauma can cause the brain to shut down, dissociate, or react intensely. The reasoning part of the brain may be ‘hijacked’ by the feeling part of the brain. Sometimes, these different structures are referred to as the ‘wizard brain’ (thinking brain) and the ‘lizard brain’ (feeling brain). When your child is in their lizard brain, it may seem impossible to manage life events without a great deal of fluctuating emotion. It is essential to have compassion and support for children who may be experiencing this kind of distress.
Impulsivity: when children are impulsive, it can be hard to distinguish this behavior from a true mood swing. If your child is making rash decisions that are getting them into trouble, it is important to ensure that this pattern does not persist. A kiddo may make a bad choice here and there, but if this is a pattern, you will want to get a professional involved. Impulsivity may look like a mood swing if your child does something drastic and unpredictable on a whim that disrupts your life. Take a closer look to see if your child’s actions were impulsive. Some kids with ADHD may act impulsively, and some kids with mood disorders will show some erratic behaviors. In either case, these issues may require clinical attention.
Genetics: when children have a predisposition to depression or other mood disorder, parents will want to be aware. It is important to note that Bipolar disorder is rare in childhood. If this type of mood swing is occurring in your child, there is probably a family history of mood disorders. These disorders are often inherited from family members. If you know there’s a parent or grandparent with a mood disorder, and you see symptoms of severe mood swings in a child, it can be helpful to see a professional to explore this further.
Oppositional defiant disorder: when children have extreme behaviors, it can be attributed to mood. The difference between a mood and behavior disorder is that a behavior disorder means the child is doing something problematic (hitting other children) to get their way (move to the front of the line, get a particular toy). When the behaviors become so problematic as to have a big impact on day-to-day life, and the child is doing the behaviors to get an end result, this could be a behavior disorder. Irrational and erratic behaviors that seem to come out of nowhere may be more of a sign of a mood disorder, depression, or anxiety.
Mood disorder: A bipolar type mood disorder indicates that an individual’s mood can shift rapidly from one intense emotion to another. While depression indicates a sad and irritable mood, a mood disorder includes extreme shifts to elevated or manic mood.
A child with a mood disorder is likely to have some poor behaviors, but they feel out of control and may not be seeking any reward with their behavior. The child feels trapped and may indicate that she wishes her brain would stop doing this. A child with these issues may say they feel like they are in jail in their own mind.
Even as recently as a decade ago, most therapists and clinicians believed that mood disorders such as Major Depression and Bipolar Disorder could only be diagnosed in adults.
Recognized experts and authors of the seminal work, ‘The Bipolar Child,’ were pioneers in instructing the field to recognize and understand that mood disorders occur in young children. Dr. Papolos explains the symptoms here,
“Children…have a more chronic course of illness where they cycle back and forth with few discernable well periods in between… Almost all bipolar children have certain temperamental and behavioral traits in common. They tend to be inflexible and oppositional, they tend to be extraordinarily irritable, and almost all experience periods of explosive rage.” – Papolos & Papolos 
The term ‘bipolar’ replaces the previous term ‘manic-depressive.’ The mood swings in this disorder are still described using the term ‘mania’ and ‘depression.’ A manic episode or hypomanic state includes feelings of giddiness, flight of ideas (suddenly generating a stream of creative ways to change the world and energetically lecturing others about them), engagement in risky behavior, over excitement or excessive hyperactivity.
You may notice fast and pressured speech (intense, fast, frantic, urgent, tangential speech) in your child, or they may talk about things that are embellished or seem unreasonable.
During a manic episode, your child may have ‘grandiose’ ideas about being able to do everything and anything, or having magical powers, displaying inflated self-esteem.
A depressive state includes symptoms of irritability, sadness, a loss of pleasure in things that used to be enjoyable, and challenges with sleep or appetite.
In children, depression often appears as irritability. Thus, you may find that your child does not cry or seem sad, but if there are consistent periods of irritability; alternating with manic periods, bipolar should still be considered.
It is also possible that a rapidly shifting mood is the onset of a depressive episode. If your child shifts from neutral or happy to depressed without periods of excessive giddiness, pressured speech, or risky behavior, your child may be experiencing periods of depression rather than bipolar.
What to Do About Mood Swings in Childhood:
A child with mood swings will benefit from learning coping strategies to deal with feelings of anger, irritability, or depression. Do not allow your child to engage you in a power struggle or bring you into an argument. Remain calm, and suggest they engage in a coping strategy.
Remind them that you are there to provide support but will not respond to insults or hateful remarks.
Teach your child emotional regulation skills
DO: teach your child to recognize emotion in their body. Help your child recognize where they experience different emotions. Do they feel a tightness and an uncomfortableness in their heart signaling sadness?
When they are angry, does their face turn red and does your child tense certain muscles? Help your child develop a feeling vocabulary and understand what the felt sensation of those emotions feels like in their body.
THIS WORK TAKES A LOT OF PRACTICE. KEEP AT IT. (This video is great at explaining why we lose control of our emotions. It may help to watch it with your child.)
DO: help your child link an emotion, to an uncomfortable feeling, to a healthy coping strategy. When your child is experiencing an uncomfortable emotion, help them recognize that they have a choice of what to do next. They can take a moment to pause. Instead of having an outburst, they can ride the wave of the emotion and choose a healthy strategy for coping. Healthy strategies include riding a bike, going for a walk, progressive muscle relaxation, visualizing a favorite place, drawing a picture, texting a positive friend, having a glass of water, drinking tea, taking a bath, or simply laying on the floor and listening to music or an audiobook.
DO: get help for yourself. The key to teaching your child emotional regulation is the ability to regulate your own emotions in a healthy way. Many of us were not taught healthy ways to cope, and it may be hard to stay calm yourself. Get the support you need!
DO: learn about mindfulness: The mindfulness approach involves recognizing and accepting feelings and allowing them just to be. This practice involves scanning the body to notice any tension and working on letting that tension go. Awareness of the present time and accepting thoughts and feelings are important in mindfulness. Using mindfulness principles does not require or refute any religious or spiritual orientation. Most apps such as Calm and Headspace teach mindfulness without reference to any religion. Rather, these principles apply universally and can help all people who are willing to understand where feelings come from and what to do about them.
When to Seek Help for Mood Swings in Childhood
If you feel that even the most consistent and calm parenting approaches are not reaching your child, you may need help from a mental health professional. Children with mood conditions can be extremely difficult to parent. Consultation with an ABA Therapist, Psychiatrist, and Psychologist may be necessary to help your family navigate these challenges.
Professional Resources on Mood Swings in Childhood
If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of their learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help:
- Psychotherapist or play therapist: to treat emotional symptoms; to consider options like a DBT therapy group, individualized cognitive behavioral therapy, and school-based supports like friendship groups, a mentor or counseling services
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment of symptoms to get a clear profile of your child’s strengths and weaknesses. This process could help drive treatment direction or understand what supports may be most helpful
- Psychiatrist or medical doctor: to assess the severity of mood symptoms and the impact of any behavior problems. It can be helpful to be in close contact with your medical doctor or a child psychiatrist so that you can consider medications that may be helpful and rule out any medical causes or contributors to the symptoms you see
- Emergency assistance: to help in any clinical emergency. Call 9-1-1 or go to the emergency room if you feel your child’s safety or the safety of another is in jeopardy. Sometimes, mood symptoms go from concerning to dangerous very quickly, and making the decision to go to the ER can save a life. Do not hesitate to take this step if your child or others are at risk
Similar Conditions to Mood Swings in Children
If your child is struggling with a similar problem not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for information about other related symptom areas.
- Trauma: mood swings may be related to a traumatic event such as the death of a family member, a sudden move, a car accident, a house fire, loss of loved ones or primary caregivers
- Attachment: mood symptoms may be related to inconsistent, abusive, or neglectful parenting. If your child is adopted, even at birth, attachment symptoms can be an issue. Keep in mind that attachment patterns may be disturbed for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes a child will not attach to a caregiver because the caregiver is depressed or going through their own traumatic experience. If this type of issue is coming up in your home, you will need support from a clinician
- Situational factors: mood symptoms may arise from situations in life. For example, is the child very different at home versus with friends versus in school? Are there learning disorders that may impact your child? Could bullying at school be having an impact? The good news with situational factors is that these issues are readily amenable to treatment. If your child is in distress over a new problem or situation, most psychotherapists can help get things back on track fairly quickly
- Suicidal ideation: prolonged mood symptoms can lead individuals to contemplate suicide. This type of thinking is especially concerning if there is any history of suicidal ideation, statements, or plans. If your child may be suicidal, call 911, visit your nearest emergency room or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255
- Depression: mood symptoms may be due to a true depressive disorder. Concerning signs are: a family history of depression: lack of interest in previously pleasurable activities, hopelessness, despair, disturbed patterns of sleep and eating, low self-esteem
- Attention challenges: mood symptoms can sometimes appear like ADHD. These symptoms might include hyperactive and impulsive behavior
- Genetics: mood symptoms can be due to Bipolar Disorder. This condition is somewhat rare in children, but it tends to run in families. A family history of anxiety, depression, autism spectrum disorder, alcoholism, or abuse can also be a red flag for mood disorders as we see in the research that there are some genetic links
References on Mood Swings In Childhood
 Papolos M.D. Demitri & Papolos, Janice (2002). The Bipolar Child: The definitive and reassuring guide to childhood’s most understood disorder. Broadway Books, New York.
Book Resources on Mood Swings in Childhood
Purvis, Cross, & Sunshine (2007). The Connected Child. Bring hope and healing to your adoptive family.