Family Life, Parenting

Learning Years: Escape the Moody Cycle

November 18, 2019

Learn clues and strategies to recognize and disrupt moody breakdowns and blow-ups.

Sudden escalation of anger in response to small incidents is a common trait of moodiness at any age. Excessively moody children are very challenging to parent because they develop an automatic pattern of behavioral reactions. Consequently, parents become cautious and walk on eggshells to prevent dramatic, and sometimes, destructive outbursts. Despite the challenges, there are helpful, proactive steps that help break the pattern of automatic, emotionally-based outbursts.

Many cues forewarn the escalation of mood. Children should be encouraged to tune in to their bodies, thoughts, and behavior in order to calm down before they get too upset. It is also crucial for parents to tune in and look for signals (hunger, stress, illness, or time of day) that a volcanic eruption may be in the forecast.

Some people with mood issues cycle in and out of bad periods. When a child is in a bad cycle, parents may back off with unimportant details while still maintaining essential rules, limits, and routines. Caution does not equate to catering to bad behavior, but rather choosing battles wisely.


Responding, rather than reacting, to a child’s escalating mood is a sensitive business. Sometimes little tactics can deescalate a blow-up, but other times it must run its course.

Moody kids may “throw their feelings” at someone rather than processing them on their own. Anxiety expert Christopher McCurry calls this “throwing the hot potato.” Another way to put this is that the child externalizes negative emotions (lashing out) rather than owning them and working them out. Parents are not obligated to catch the hot potato; they can step aside and use validation to get the moody child to take ownership of their feelings.

A good on-the-spot strategy is validation. A validating comment shows the child that you are tuned in. Use a question to help the child identify thoughts and emotions. Try saying, “It looks like you may be having some frustrating thoughts, but I’m not sure.”

Never tell a child what he or she is feeling. When someone on the brink of a meltdown takes a moment to describe their thoughts or feelings, this can derail an automatic reaction such as yelling or aggression. The child can then make a better choice or problem-solve rather than blow up. Always keep validation brief and never let it become a lecture.

Slowing Down

Moody children must regularly practice soothing skills. The child may not readily embrace daily relaxation practice, but it can become a habit.

A comfort corner is a refuge or safe space for children to go to calm down, reflect, and practice mindfulness. This space should not be confused with time out and should never be a punishment. This space is a proactive measure that will help children deescalate. Children should be encouraged to enjoy this area regularly, and not just when they are upset.

Parents may increase a child’s enjoyment of this space by playing with him or her in the area regularly (or just hanging out with an older child). Parents and children may read about emotions, practice deep breathing, try yoga, or visualize comforting places. A comfort corner may be helpful in multiple environments, including home, school, and wherever the child is cared for regularly (the home of a grandparent).

Make the Process Your Practice

Stress is most manageable before the child is too aroused. Parents can help children tune in by saying what they are observing (regarding patterns of behavior), validating the child’s distress, and inquiring about thoughts and feelings. The child should then be redirected to the comfort corner to think things over and calm down. When this process is repeated, moody children can learn to regulate their emotions and behavior.

Dr. Pat Blackwell is a licensed developmental psychologist who has worked with families for over 30 years, and is the author of Nola Family’s award-winning “Learning Years” column.

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