Signs & Symptoms

Mood Swings

Is your child having extreme mood swings?

Does your child have a rapidly fluctuating mood? This term means your child’s mood shifts from silly and happy to excessively sad or angry in a very short time frame. Sometimes people say that someone with these issues is like the famous Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

This child may seem like one person one minute and someone entirely different the next. You may catch yourself saying, “I wonder where my child went and how I can get him back?”

Often, the child finds these sudden changes in demeanor and feelings to be annoying or even crippling. He may feel like he is trapped in a prison of rapidly fluctuating moods.

She may feel trapped by her pattern in which she feels amazing one day, like she can conquer the world, followed by extreme sadness the next day.

Children with these challenges are extremely challenging to parent. Many families feel trapped in their own homes and may feel afraid of their children. Some parents feel that their children are abusive toward them and may need to create firm boundaries for their own sanity.

One parent explains, “We feel like we’ve been thrown into a tornado that is big, black, and powerful.” [1]

What do challenges with Mood Swings look like?

  • Acting like Dr. Jekyll and then Mr. Hyde?
  • Having explosive temper outbursts?
  • Making your household feel like you are in the eye of a storm?
  • Having rapidly changing moods, moving from happy to a huge tantrum in a matter of minutes?
  • Constantly shifting from being upbeat to being irritated, or sad?
  • Acting very impulsive, giddy, or silly?
  • Shifting in and out of these silly moods without warning?
  • Doing dangerous things without thinking?
  • Appearing to think she can accomplish anything and everything?
  • Thinking he can fly, or that he is a famous rock star?  

Why is Mood Swings happening?

Mood swings are distinctly different than meltdowns or tantrums. Mood swings are truly shifting chemical patterns in the brain. While meltdowns and other typical upsets are precipitated by an event, mood swings can seem somewhat random. 


Bipolar disorder could be an issue if an individual’s mood can shift rapidly from one intense emotion to another. Although it can be hard for non-clinical people to differentiate, mood disorders are not the same as behavior disorders. Children with mood disorders will have tantrums, but their issues are ‘organic’ rather than volitional. That is, the mood swings are deeply rooted in brain chemicals and often seem to come out of nowhere. 


Even as recently as a decade ago, most therapists and many clinicians believed that mood disorders such as Major Depression and Bipolar Disorder could only be diagnosed in adults. Recognized experts and authors of the seminal work, ‘The Bipolar Child’ were pioneers in instructing the field to recognize and understand that mood disorders do occur in young children. Dr. Papolos explains the symptoms here,


“Children…have more chronic course of illness where they cycle back and forth with few discernable well periods in between… Almost all bipolar children have certain temperamental and behavioral traits in common. They tend to be inflexible and oppositional, they tend to be extraordinarily irritable, and almost all experience periods of explosive rage.” – Papolos & Papolos


The term ‘bipolar’ replaces the previous term ‘manic-depressive.’ The mood swings in this disorder are still described using the term ‘mania’ and ‘depression.’ It is also possible that rapidly shifting mood is the onset of a depressive episode. If your child shifts from neutral or happy to depressed without periods of excessive giddiness, pressured speech, or risky behavior, your child may experience periods of depression rather than bipolar. Major Depression is also a serious condition in kids. If your child appears down and hopeless most of the day, nearly every day, he or she is displaying red flags that are worthy of clinical attention. All mood swings described above are serious signs that it would be important to see a psychologist right away.

How can I manage Mood Swings at home?

If mood-related symptoms of any kind have a significant impact on day-to-day functioning, it is important to consider an evaluation to clarify your child’s symptoms and to identify the next steps for treatment. If you are concerned about safety, you should call 911 or visit your nearest emergency room.

If the concerns are more about day-to-day functioning and happiness, clinical attention may also be needed in terms of evaluation, counseling, psychiatric services (which may include dietary changes or medication), and parent consultation.

If you think your child may be displaying bipolar mood swings or major depression, it is very unlikely that you will be able to manage these symptoms on your own.

When thinking about Bipolar symptoms, Dr. Papolos describes the signs as,

“No one symptom identifies a child as having bipolar disorder, but if hyperactivity, irritable and shifting moods, and prolonged temper tantrums co-occur – and there is a history of mood disorders and/or alcoholism coming down either or both the mother and father’s line – the index of suspicion should be high. Indeed, our study sample showed that over 80 percent of the children who developed early-onset bipolar disorder had what is known as bilineal transmission’ – substance and mood disorders appeared on both sides of their families.” [1]

It is important to think about whether or not mood disorders or substance abuse runs in your family. Many children with organic mood conditions have either an immediate or distant family member with these challenges. If you or your child are suffering from the emotional chaos and drama that a mood disorder can bring to your household, you will need support from a clinical professional (see below).

In terms of treatments, your child with rapidly shifting mood may need support in identifying his or her mood states. Emotional Awareness is an important skill for a child working to have more control over mood shifts.

Experienced licensed therapists can work with your child using a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), or other appropriate therapies, based on the presentation of trauma or co-morbid conditions. A child with mood swings will also benefit from learning coping strategies to deal with feelings of anger, irritability or depression. Do not allow your child to engage you in a power struggle or to bring you into an argument. Remain calm, and suggest he or she engage in a coping strategy.

Remind him or her that you are there to provide support but will not respond to insults or hateful remarks. If you feel that even the most consistent and calm parenting approaches are not reaching you child, you may need clinical help. Children with mood conditions can be extremely difficult to parent. Consultation with an ABA Therapist, Psychiatrist, and Psychologist may be necessary to help your family navigate these challenges.

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Mood Swings?

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his or her learning, relationships, or happiness, it’s time to seek professional help.

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