I have an 11-year-old granddaughter whose emotions are all over the place. Recently, she came home from school in an especially angry mood. I could tell something had happened, but when I asked her about it, she yelled that it was none of my business and slammed the door in my face.
Why is my granddaughter moody? What should I do? Should I give her space? I never know how to respond to her in situations like this.
Dear Concerned Grams,
First, I want to give you some good news: “bad” behavior at home means a child feels certain they’re loved no matter what.
Your granddaughter knows she can let her hair down and be difficult in front of you because you’ve created a safe place for her to fall apart. If she were to exhibit mood swings in children, this kind of behavior at school would be a symptom of a much bigger problem.
But Concerned Grams, I know this assurance doesn’t fix the problem you’re having.
What you and your granddaughter are experiencing is a classic communication breakdown. Neither of you has the necessary tools to reach the other, so you’re caught in a rut of ill-expressed feelings, hurt, and reasons a child has mood swings unmet needs.
Here’s the thing to keep in mind: children don’t have the sophisticated vocabulary or the maturity to identify their unmet needs. So 99% of the time, a child’s default reaction to emotional discomfort is to fall apart crying, screaming, kicking—or all three!
As the adults in the room, it’s our job to teach kids to self-regulate their emotions and effectively express what they need. Here’s what I recommend:
No matter how personal your granddaughter’s behavior may feel to you, know that it’s not about you. Her yelling and slamming doors are symptoms of her own pain, and nothing else. As Marshall Rosenberg once said, “Never listen to the words people say.” Your grandchild’s angry words will only trigger you. So when you feel emotions begin to rise, allow yourself self-empathy and self-compassion. Take a pause and step back. Once you’ve depersonalized, then you’ll be ready to re-engage.
- Lead them out.
Once both you and your granddaughter have achieved a level of calmness, open a line of communication in a gentle, leading way. If you suspect the problem stems from friendships at school, for example, start with something like: “It seems like you’re feeling so distraught. You need to be seen as who you are, to be acknowledged and included, to have security in your relationships. Do you feel like one of your friends isn’t meeting these needs?” Then listen to her response—with compassion and without judgment.
- Help them name their unmet needs.
Because children have trouble identifying their unmet needs, they blame external factors for how they feel.
If they’re excluded from a party invitation, for example, they feel so overwhelmed with negative emotions that the underlying unmet need (i.e. the need for belonging and friendship) goes unresolved.
Help your granddaughter express, “I feel…because my needs aren’t being met,” instead of letting factors she can’t control dictate how she feels inside.
Concerned Grams, when a kid is hurt, sad, or distressed, they have no idea how to reconnect in a meaningful way with those around them. But your concern is the first step to dealing with your child’s mood swings helping your granddaughter through whatever difficulties she’s experiencing.
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