Helping "Moody" Kids

by Jan and Rick Hanson

Sometimes our 3-year-old is cheerful, but little things can always set him off, and then he seems grumpy and "blue" for longer than it seems like he should. Not to get paranoid, but depression runs in my husband's family, and I'm already starting to wonder about our son.

For starters, please know that it's extremely rare for a preschooler to be clinically depressed, unless something seriously traumatic has happened. It sounds more like your son is just vulnerable to getting bumped into a bad mood, and that it's harder than one would like for him to climb back out of his slump. And he sounds very normal; lots of other kids have similar tendencies.

So what to do? Here are some basic principles, and parents with spirited or anxious children could probably benefit from trying these approaches as well.

Make sure there's lots of nurturance. Kids like your son have extra needs for the stabilizing benefits of parental attention, but with everybody's busy schedules these days, it's easy sometimes for a child to get lost in the shuffle. Ask yourself, how many minutes a day is each of my children getting quality one-on-one attention from me? From my partner? If it's less than 20 minutes a day per child per parent (and ideally, there'd be much more time), that's going to create problems.

Encourage the child to soak in happy experiences. Depending on her age, find ways to help her take good moments into herself, so she builds up a positive emotional memory. Moody, spirited, and anxious children particularly need to access positive feelings inside in order to soothe themselves, calm down, and not give up when life's hard. Have her imagine she's a sponge absorbing good feelings, or that she's got a treasure chest in her heart for them. Try spending a few minutes each night before bed reviewing the day and recalling or thinking about things that make her feel good - and then have her soak them in.

Keep stress down. Stress seems to roll right off the backs of some kids, but that's the exception, not the rule, and moody, anxious, or spirited kids are like human velcro when it comes to stress. Make a serious effort to avoid long days of childcare, overscheduling, too few breaks, and inappropriate expectations. Also try to hold your temper, since the single biggest stressor for most young children is their mom's or dad's anger.

Ask the preschool teacher, a trusted friend, or a counselor for advice. A second pair of eyes might see things you don't that could be affecting your child (marital problems? a pushy big brother? too hectic at home? too much yelling? a bully at school?) and have some good ideas about what could help.

Maintain good general nutrition. The guidelines are obvious but worth repeating: Protein with every meal, especially breakfast (no sweet cereal, toast with jam, or Pop Tarts!); if your child's in preschool, find out how long he goes there without a protein-rich snack (Cheerios, goldfish, crackers, grapes, pretzels, etc. do NOT count!); protein every 2-3 hours is a good rule of thumb. Keep sugar low, especially in drinks. Lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, and whole grains instead of white flour. Minimal artificial preservatives, additives, and coloring. Buy organic whenever you can.

Watch out for food sensitivities. A "sensitivity" is like a mild allergy in the sense that the immune system is over-reacting to some substance, in this case a food molecule. (And we are not speaking here of very serious allergies to certain foods, such as peanuts, that could lead to anaphylactic shock.) A surprising number of children are sensitive to foods made from the gluten grains (e.g., wheat, oats, rye, barley), milk, or eggs -- even if they do not have obvious symptoms (though a routinely runny nose and/or dark circles under the eyes are clues).