When your kids were little, you taught them their ABCs. You taught them not to bite their friends. But now that they’re older, have you taught them how to manage their moods?
It’s something that a lot of parents forget, says Laura Jana, MD, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. But it’s just as important as any other skill you’d pass on.
Mood is at the center of a lot of the choices your kids will make, like what to eat, how much to sleep, and whether or not to exercise. If they don’t have good ways to deal with bad feelings, they may not have the motivation to decide to do the healthiest things.
And managing moods is not something that people are born knowing how to do. “Expecting a 10-year-old child will just know how to regulate her own mood is like expecting a 3-year-old will just know how to tie her shoes,” Jana says. “That’s not how it works. You have to teach them how to do it.”
It’s easy to let this slip off your parental radar, so set some goals that will help you make sure it’s a priority. Here are some good ways to get started.
Goal 1: Have a Plan for Managing Mood Swings
So what should you do the next time your kid flips out about the cosmic injustice of having to pick up his socks from the living room floor? Rather than arguing about his attitude, you can:
- Acknowledge that he’s upset, but don’t try to discuss it right now. Make clear that you feel for him, but don’t try to problem-solve while he’s raging. You'll just get sucked into an argument.
- Give him time to collect himself. You don’t need to send him to his room, but suggest that he go somewhere to cool down. Physical activity helps kids burn off frustration. Try sending him outside for a walk or a few minutes of basketball to clear his head.
- After he’s calm, then you can talk. Now you can ask him to explain what he’s upset about and come up with a rational solution.
Stick to this approach and repeat as needed, Jana says. You’re teaching your kids valuable lessons: They can’t take out bad moods on other people, they have the power to choose healthy ways to calm themselves down, and you’re there to help them when they’re ready.
Goal 2: Better Communication
It’s important that your kids feel comfortable sharing with you about how they’re feeling, says Roberta Golinkoff, PhD, a spokesperson for the American Psychological Association. Knowing what’s happening in your kids' lives can help you head off potential problems, too. Make a point to practice these good habits:
- Eat dinner together. Do it as often as you can manage. It creates a natural space for your family to talk about what’s on their minds.
- Ask better questions. Stop asking “How was school?” because all you’re ever going to hear is “uh, fine.” Golinkoff suggests asking about drama at school or about their friends and classmates. Your kids may be more comfortable sharing if they’re not the subject of the story.
- Talk while you’re doing other things. If your kid feels like you’re sitting down to talk to them seriously, their defenses may go up. Keep the conversation casual by doing other things at the same time, like driving, shopping, or cooking.
- Don’t dismiss what your kids are feeling. It’s easy to feel like your child’s angst about playground drama is silly because it won’t matter in the long run. But remember that to a kid, this stuff really is important (just as it was for you, once). So understand where he’s coming from, Jana says, and resist the temptation to downplay his concerns.
Goal 3: Clean Up Everyday Routines
The choices your kids make every day set them up for a good or a bad mood. Help them get into healthy habits. They can create a solid foundation for their emotions.
- Set a daily schedule. Establish a regular rhythm for after-school activities, homework, dinner, and bedtime. Whether they realize it or not, kids need routine, Golinkoff says, and a lack of clear boundaries can make them unsettled and unhappy.
- Make sure your kids get regular physical activity. We know that exercise can release chemicals in the body that make you feel good. And other research shows that regular exercise can also make kids more self-confident and feel better about themselves.
- Help your kids find ways to relax. Like you, kids get stressed out or run down when they don’t have time to unwind. But it’s important for them to find ways to chill out besides sprawling in front of the TV or curling up with a smartphone. Instead, tell them to try finding a quiet spot in your home to read, draw, or listen to music. Or trying deep breathing exercises or yoga videos on YouTube.
Think About the Big Picture
You wouldn’t teach your kids that it’s OK to eat a gallon of ice cream or stay up all night with a video game just because they’re sad or stressed.So it’s important to set them up with good ways to manage those moods early on. That will keep them from leaning on bad habits just because they feel good in the moment.
And the sooner, the better, Golinkoff says. Because it won’t be long before your grade schoolers are in high school and grappling with issues like hormones, alcohol and drugs, SATs, and college stress. “Helping your kids learn how to modulate their emotions when they’re young can be hard,” she says. “But boy does it pay off later.”