Can Moodiness in Tweens Be a Serious Problem?

Moody girl leaning against doorway
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"Moodiness" and "the tween years" could practically be interchangeable phrases. One minute your tween is snuggling next to you on the couch, the next you're being told you're embarrassing. Sometimes the changes might look even more extreme, with your tween brooding in the bedroom for hours on end. When is moodiness the normal byproduct of growing up and when does it signal something more serious?

Why Tweens Experience Moodiness

When we stop to consider all that tweens are going through emotionally, physically and socially, it's no wonder they get a little moody. As they move toward puberty, their hormones begin to fluctuate, causing emotional instability. Tweens also lack the emotional development to fully control their moods. In other words, they express exactly what they're feeling like they're feeling it. They're also dealing with a lot of stress, including wanting to be your little baby who is cared for and protected while simultaneously wanting to be a full-grown, independent person. Combine those elements and it makes for some volatile moods.

What Are Mood Disorders?

Even though most tween mood changes are normal, mood disorders can and do crop up during these years. Two common mood disorders are major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder. Both disorders involve periods of low mood, irritability, apathy, sleep problems, eating disturbances, fatigue and decreased concentration.

In bipolar disorder, these depressed periods alternate with periods of mania or hypomania (low-level mania) that include an elevated or irritable mood, sleeping less, talking more, being hyperactive and showing poor judgment. Older adolescents or adults with bipolar disorder often have episodes of these mood states that can last weeks or longer, but a child with bipolar might instead switch between the high and low states with much greater frequency.

How Common Are Mood Disorders?

You might think the mood disorders sound a lot like your moody tween. Actually, these disorders are relatively rare, especially in the tween age group.

Major depressive disorder strikes about 5% of people under 18 in the U.S., becoming more common with increasing age.

Bipolar disorder is extremely rare before puberty; only about 3% of teens in the U.S. have the disorder.

Differences Between Moodiness and Mood Disorders

So how can you tell whether your child is suffering from a mood disorder or is simply being a tween? One key difference is impairment. Every tween sulks at times, but take note of whether your tween's brooding is getting in the way of going to school, eating and sleeping, participating in sports or meeting up with friends. Is he or she basically living life the same way as always? If so, the moodiness is most likely normative.

Also, keep an eye on your child's classmates and friends. How are they acting? What sorts of mood swings are they going through? Observing typical behavior in their peer group can help you gain perspective on what's "normal"—even though it might not be anything like what's normal for us adults!

You should talk with your child's doctor if your tween expresses a great deal of distress, begins to disengage from the world, says she wants to "disappear," talks about suicide, or to wants to hurt others.

How to Handle Normal Moodiness

If you think you're dealing with a case of normal tween moodiness—and chances are, you are—how do you cope? Remember that your child is not out to torture you, but is rather struggling with a strange cocktail of hormones, emotional instability, and social strife. Cut her a little slack.

At the same time, though, know that it's never OK for children to hurt others with their actions, no matter what they're going through. Develop their empathy by explaining how their actions affect you or other family members.

Avoid "you" phrases like "You're completely out of line when you complain about dinner." Instead use "I" phrases, like "I felt hurt when you complained about the dinner that I spent time making."

Recognize that your child might not respond positively at the moment. Before long, though, their mood will swing back and you'll be together on the couch yet again. Well, at least for a little while.

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