Sometimes parents/guardians come to me with concerns that their child is irritable and moody, lacks focus and attention, is more reactive with their emotions, seems unmotivated to get things done, and/or has become more argumentative/defiant. If that sounds familiar to you as well, consider the list below that identifies factors that can affect children’s behaviors and moods.
1. Sleep: If your child is not getting enough sleep it can lead to moodiness, irritability, lack of focus, and fatigue (which can also present as a lack of motivation). Less sleep also means less time for the body to regulate itself or get rest which can make a child more prone to illness and stress. (a)
Bottom line— kids need an adequate amount of sleep and/or a regular sleep routine.
2. Diet: There are many foods that affect mood, energy levels, focus, etc. You are probably already familiar with the effects of sugar on the body and brain, but other things like food additives and preservatives, gluten, dairy, etc. can have an effect on the nervous system, the digestive system, and mental health. (b)
Bottom line— limit or remove sugar and preservatives/additives from the child’s diet; provide a healthy, balanced diet for your child.
3. Exercise: Physical activity not only creates mood-boosting endorphins but it also releases tension and helps the body to detox. Exercise can also help people get better rest/sleep at night. (c)
Bottom line— make sure the child gets regular exercise.
4. Fresh air/nature: Getting outdoors and having exposure to nature, fresh air, and even dirt can help with general wellbeing. When we go outdoors on a mild to sunny day, we get Vitamin D from the sun. Vitamin D plays a key role in wellbeing and mood. In addition, we tend to produce more serotonin on sunny days. (d) (e) When we get our hands in the soil/dirt we get exposed to microbes that act as natural antidepressants. (f) And taking a walk in nature in and of itself has positive impacts on mood and well being. (g)
Bottom line-- get your kids outdoors often.
5. Screens and media: There are many ways that screen time impacts our children’s health, from disrupting sleep cycles to increasing cortisol in their bodies. (h) Another consideration is the exposure the child gets to commercials, the news, and content that is more appropriate for an older audience.
Bottom line—reduce screen time.
6. Daily schedule: So many children are over-scheduled and rushed. Between school/pre-school, playdates and birthday parties, camp, aftercare, sports, enrichment classes (i.e. art or language classes), etc… we are raising kids to have activity-packed days and evenings. However, kids need time to be bored, time to explore their imaginations and play, and time to be with themselves (and family). In addition, self regulation, mindfulness, and coping skills are much easier to teach a child at a child’s pace, where they are listened to and validated, but also taught new skills. It's difficult to meet that need in the midst of a busy day. (i)
Bottom line—make sure the child’s schedule is not too rushed or packed full of activity.
A parent or guardian can make positive changes to one or more of the items above to see if it helps improve their child’s general mood and functioning. Sometimes a parent can bypass the need for counseling or medications when changes to the basics above are addressed. However, as you may know already, some things are easier said than done. I get that. I could probably write a chapter about each section above with helpful hints and suggestions for ways to navigate around all the challenges. However, I hope this overview gives a starting point for immediate and low-no cost ways to enhance your child’s wellbeing and behavior. As always, if you’ve already tried a bunch of interventions to no avail, or you (and/or the child) are "at wits end" so to speak, seek support from a pediatrician and/or counselor. Thats what we’re here for.
Copyright 2017 Bonnie Thomas
Bonnie Thomas, LCSW
Indigo North Counseling, LLC