© Rick Hanson, Ph.D., and Jan
Hanson, L.Ac., 2005
Helping "Moody" Kids
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. Low sugar,
especially in drinks. Fresh fruit and vegetables, and whole grains.
- Watch out for food allergies - A surprising number of children are
allergic 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
Try completely eliminating foods from one of these sources for ten days,
and see if there is a marked improvement in mood, resilience, energy,
etc. If not, move on to eliminating foods from another group. (If you're
not quite sure, on one occasion give the child a lot of the food after
the ten days and see if there is an obvious return of symptoms.)
Alternately, you could do a food sensitivity panel (requiring a blood
draw, ouch) with a licensed health practitioner who is experienced in
If you've determined that there is, indeed, a food allergy, yes, it's a
pain in the neck, but better to know than to be in the dark. There truly
are plenty of alternative, tasty foods; we know this from personal
experience, since our son is allergic to wheat, etc.
- Give a basic, high-quality supplement - In a perfect world, all
children would get the nutrition needed for optimal health (beyond being
merely not-sick). But in the real world, few get all the vitamins,
minerals, and other nutrients they need. Therefore, look for a
high-quality "multi" (the best are found at your health food store) in a
form that your child will take.
- Consider specific supplements - Two nutrients have a particular
benefit for mood issues, and they're listed just below with recommended
dosages. Since these are natural substances the body is used to (and in
fact, needs to survive), they generally have no side effects, and are
very safe to use.
- Essential fatty acids - We suggest "molecularly distilled" fish oils
(flax oil is an option for vegetarians, but it's often just not as
effective as fish oil, alas). Try about half a teaspoon a day for a
young child, either liquid (if they'll take it, perhaps mixed in their
food, but not heated), or in small capsules; Nordic Naturals is an
- B vitamins - Deficits in all of the B-vitamins have been shown to
lower mood;, and vitamins B-6 and B-12, and folic acid are particularly
important. Try to get your child to swallow a high potency B-complex
pill, ideally in the morning (it could be a little stimulating), and
don't worry about the natural result of turning his urine bright yellow.
You could also try B-12, which is placed under the tongue to dissolve.
- Maybe try 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) - You've probably heard of
serotonin, the neurotransmitter that has a major role in regulating
mood. The body builds it from the amino acid, tryptophan, and the
next-to-last step is 5-HTP. You can get this supplement in any health
food store, and it has good research support for mild depression in
adults. It's smart to be cautious about anything that affects a
developing child's brain, but if you've tried everything else and there
are still problems, for a child 6 or older (perhaps younger if you're
working with a licensed, nutritionally-oriented health practitioner) you
might consider 50 milligrams a day, taken in the morning.
- Take good care of yourself, and your marriage - It's a simple fact:
the best way to support your child's well-being is to take good care of
your own, and to keep teamwork and intimate friendship alive with your
mate. Moody children bring extra stresses to their parents: a special
reason to nurture yourself.
(Rick Hanson is a clinical psychologist, Jan Hanson is
an acupuncturist/nutritionist, and they are raising a daughter and
son, ages 12 and 14. With Ricki Pollycove, M.D., they are the
authors of Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind,
and Intimate Relationships, published by Penguin. You can see their
website at www.nurturemom.com or email them with questions or
comments at email@example.com; unfortunately, a personal reply may
not always be possible.)