We all have moods. Good moods, bad moods, in between moods. We all have symptoms. Fever? Chills? Achy? Thankfully, symptoms are rare in our lives. Moods, however? They come and go with greater frequency. While the symptoms of physical ailment are rather obvious, not so much for emotional upset.
When your child becomes whiny, fearful, clingy, withdrawn, these may be signs of a mood, or they may be signs of anxiety, depression, relational issues, or other emotional malady. What to do? How to tell the difference?
In over 45 years of clinical practice with children, teens, and their families, I've come to develop the 6-8 week rule. That is, if you notice these signs for less than 6-8 weeks, they probably are evidence of a mood. If they persist for longer than 6-8 weeks, they might be symptoms.
The keys, of course, are relationship and vigilance. "Hey, Son, I notice that you've been kinda edgy lately. Wanna talk?" With healthy relationship, he will want to talk with you. If not, make sure he knows that you're available when he does want to. Active listening is your go to response when you notice your child's emotional fever spike.
Vigilance might involve tracking your child's feelings and behaviors over time, to notice if they persist. With persistent worry, you could guide them through changing thoughts from "what if" to "I wonder" and attaching a positive outcome to the "I wonder." With persistent sadness or withdrawal, you could guide them with check-ins daily and help them rank their days from 1-10, with the higher numbers being better days.
If the signs persist longer than 8 weeks, talk to each other and with your child about getting professional counseling. Just as with persistent physical symptoms that impact your child's quality of life, and you would take her to her pediatrician, so too with persistent emotional symptoms, you would take her to her family counselor. Mood or symptom? You have the tools to help your child handle it.
Count on equal measure of eustress and distress when you or your child is going through a transition. Normal transitions for kids during a school day include asleep to awake, home to school, between classes, lunch, recess, school to home, and awake to asleep. During these and other transitions in life, we tend to find trouble. Much heartache and difficulty can be avoided by simply giving your child a heads-up. Tell him five or ten minutes before the anticipated transition that he needs to wrap up what he’s doing and get ready.
If you get attitude for your efforts, recognize it as evidence of your child having an emotional fever. Bring the fever down by active listening, that is, trying to play back to him what you think he is feeling at the moment. After the fever is down, noticed by lower tension and calmer voice, go back to giving him another heads-up. The transition will occur, but you can lower the stress levels associated with transition.