Mood Swings in a 3-Year-Old

Much as you love your 3-year-old, his mood swings and tantrums can bring you to your wits' end at times. One minute he's happy and playing peacefully and the next he's screaming in anger or crying in great sadness or frustration. It's important to determine the difference between a passing case of the "grumpies" and a child who exhibits short-tempered behavior all the time, stresses the American Academy of Pediatrics 2. You can teach your preschooler communication and coping skills for the occasional irritability that comes to everyone, young and old alike, but if grumpy seems to be his permanent state of mind, it's time to call in the cavalry and get professional help. In most cases, however, identifying the triggers, such as illness, heat, hunger, nutrition or home stress and applying effective authoritative parenting strategies can help equip your 3-year-old with the emotional know-how to navigate the rocky shoals of life without shipwrecking.

All the World's a Stage

When your 3-year-old does not get what she wants, all eyes are on her and the Oscar-worthy tantrum melodrama that follows takes center stage. Tantrums in small children result from high energy and the inability to use words to get their needs or wants met, says R.J. Fetsch and B. Jacobson of the Colorado State University Extension. If you feed her emotion with your own, ignore or give in to the whining, yelling and temper tantrums, the situation only escalates and sets up a vicious cycle that feeds the rebellious, disobedient and aggressive behavior you want to eliminate. Rather than responding with criticism or yelling in exasperation or avoiding confrontation, calm yourself and use as few words as possible in the heat of the moment. Wait until both of you are ready to talk calmly and model appropriate anger management. Build self-control and self-esteem through clearly stated rules, understanding, empathy and positive acknowledgment of desirable behaviors.

Line Up the Suspects

When a young child is prone to mood swings, narrowing down the possible triggers can inform your decision on the best way to handle your irritable preschooler. Culprits range from inconsistent parenting, too much criticism and family issues to illness or disease, learning difficulties, hunger or nutritional deficiencies, fatigue, boredom, frustration, anger, guilt, jealousy, fear or needing attention or affirmation. The most effective solution to your little one's moodiness involves getting at the root cause and offering appropriate strategies for coping with life's little bumps in the road.

Calming Stormy Seas

The teachable moment that follows a tantrum produces the best results when the discipline or training fits your child's reason for being irritated, upset or angry. Use as few words as possible, getting straight to the point without lecturing and following through with definitive action to carry out what you have said you will do. If hunger or nutritional deficiency are destabilizing his emotional control, offering him some healthy high-protein, high-fiber food is going to solve the problem much more efficiently than any discipline technique. If family stress is creating a toxic environment in your home, you can consciously and deliberately practice speaking respectfully and being supportive and encouraging rather than critical. Watch and listen for your child's feelings about the stress and acknowledge their validity while teaching him how to use words to express his feelings rather than tantrums. If your preschooler has medical issues or learning difficulties, getting proper treatment and moral support can help lift his spirits and alleviate the mood swings. Make sure your little one gets adequate rest, quality time and attention from you. You can distract him from boredom by redirecting his attention to another activity he enjoys. Teach him how to use relaxation or calming techniques to verbalize his feelings, deflate his anger and reassure his fears rather than expressing them as loud, aggressive, demanding behavior.

When to Call for Help

If all the love, support and calming techniques still leave your preschooler prone to chronic moodiness that seems to take up residence in her life and never leave, watch for signs that it is a serious medical or psychological issue in need of professional treatment. Symptoms of a more serious mood disorder than simple mood swings can account for include: headaches, stomachaches, severe irritability, aggression, defiance, shouting, intense fear of the unknown, losing interest in social activities with friends, sleep disturbances, under- or over-eating, low energy or fatigue, low self-esteem and poor concentration and decision-making skills. If you are worried that your preschooler's mood swings are more than just a normal developmental stage, see a doctor or psychologist that specializes in child behavior problems for a professional diagnosis and treatment advice.