Eleven year old Cindy lays sideways across her bed, doodling on a large, blank pad. She starts with a dot in the middle of the page and then swirls outward until she is making big, sweeping marker strokes. She presses so hard at the end that she rips the paper. She balls it up and throws it at her bedroom door before falling back on the bed in a heap of tears. Shortly thereafter, her mom knocks on her bedroom door.
“Go away. Nobody’s home,” she fusses at the sound. Mama quietly opens the door and peeks in.
“Well, Nobody’s just the person I was looking for.” Her attempt at humor falls on deaf ears.
“What do you want, Mom? I’m busy.”
“Well…I can see that,” she replies as she reaches down to retrieve the balled up paper at her feet. She unballs it and flattens it out. “Honey, what’s going on?” She slips onto the bed beside Cindy.
“Nothing. Leave me alone. Everything,” Cindy spits out in rapid fire. Mom let the silence between them linger. “Why did she have to ruin everything, Mama?”
When Cindy called her mom “Mama,” she knew her heart was heavy. They stayed in the room and talked for a half hour. Mom used her best active listening and, as she saw Cindy’s emotional fever come down, she offered some adult perspective and wise counsel.
At Cindy’s tender age, Mom wants to consider several factors. First, where is Cindy in her dawning menstrual cycle? Moods often magnify as a woman’s body begins her monthlies. Second, where is Cindy in her development? Erik Erikson tracks psychosocial development. At age 11, Cindy should be struggling with doing well and getting things done, called industry, or developing a sense of not-good-enough, called inferiority. Arnold Gesell tracked developmental, cyclical moods and found most 11 yr. olds loving but defiant. Third, how long has her daughter been in a funk? I follow what I call “the six-week rule.” If a difficult behavior occurs for less than 6 weeks, then it’s likely just a mood. If it occurs for more than 6 weeks, it might be a symptom.
With her tenderness, compassion, and active listening, mom is on the right track. But she needs to monitor whether Cindy’s behavior identifies a mood or a symptom.