Guest post: 9-year-old boys and their mood swings

The other day I was posting on Facebook about how my older son seems to be going through wild mood swings and outbursts of anger. Now, I know he's emotional (all boys are. all kids are), but the ways he's had of dealing with his emotions in the past (talking about it, getting physical exercise, hugs) don't seem to be cutting it anymore. I was bemoaning my bad parenting skills, when T, a friend of mine who's a dad of the kind of 14-year-old son you'd be proud to have, offered some advice. So I asked him to write an entire post for those of us who were really good with the "talk it out/run it out" method of emotion management for our little guys, but may be feeling blindsided by the sheer rage of our bigger guys.

So without further ado, here's the dad's eye view of the 9-year-old boy, from a survivor:

It’s Not You, It Really Is Him

Hey there, friend of Moxie here. Just like you, I’m a parent, and specifically, a dad.

Question for everyone: Do you have a son, between the ages of 9 and 12? Have you contemplated calling the FBI and filing a report that claims he was abducted by aliens and replaced with an irrational clone?

Put the phone down.

Children basically go through three phases before becoming teenagers or young adults. First there was the Terrible Two’s, where the child has obtained the motor-skills of mobility and speech. Every other word out their mouth’s is ‘no’. It’s simply them trying to shape and control their world with the new found abilities. They become more agreeable for a few years, and then the Ferocious Five’s appear. It’s usually triggered by them being influenced more by other children (kindergarten) and their need to establish some form of independence, i.e., I will not do what you say when you want me to. Once they get acclimated to attending large classrooms, being away from you for longer periods, things tend to even out and they are more predictable. You eventually know the right buttons to push, the right words to say, and the right disciplines to use to keep things on track.

So, for the next few years you think to yourself that while parenting is hard, you’re doing a good job, you’ve been blessed with a good kid, and all the hard work will produce a wonderful adult you can be proud of.

Then it happens.

Premonitions of phase three. You think the first two were bad?? Strap yourself into the rollercoaster.

Your little man, your pride and joy, this wonderful part of your family… turns into a person you’ve never met. It starts with emotional outbursts over the silliest things. There’s too much or too little milk on his cereal. Someone offers to do something nice for him and he goes into a flying rage. You didn’t lay out his favorite pair of socks before school and now he can’t go. Up until today, you didn’t know he had favorite pair, did you? The once polite boy who didn’t bat an eye when asked to take out the trash now rolls them. Confront him about it, and the smart-aleck remarks start to flow. He even starts calling you names you never would have imagined him doing. As a mom, you first instinct is to nurture and console him, find out what is bothering him. That just sets him into a further rage. As a dad, you try to assert some authority having witnessed the outbursts, which just causes him to challenge you further. You and your significant other are probably looking at each other, or in the mirror, and wondering, “How did I mess up so bad as a parent. What did I do wrong?! “

I’m here to straighten you out. You know what you did wrong? Do you? I don’t think you can handle the truth. You wanna know??!!

Nothing.  For once, it’s not you, it really is him.

Ladies and gentlemen, congratulations, you have a ‘tween’.  The word tween comes from the notion that they are in-between being a child and being a teenager, not primarily occupied with play time like small children and not having gone through puberty yet. They are facing a period of rapid social, physiological and emotional development, which culminates in going through puberty (a new level of emotional parent hell which hopefully we’ll discuss another time). In the early tween years, before puberty starts, most of the pressures they are feeling are from themselves. They are worried about how they fit into the world and being accepted by others their age. Remember when you could pick out all his clothes at the store and lay out what he would wear every day? Not anymore. In his mind he’s not a little kid, and he’s taking cues on what others are wearing and what they think about what he’s wearing. Those dreaded words have finally invaded his life… peer pressure. You’re probably cringing right now remembering your own tween and teenage years. Your once happy and balanced child is now an emotional wreck of self-imposed and societal expectations.

You’ve read this far and might be screaming, “Ok smart guy, tell me what to do to make this better!”

Impatient, are we? There is no magic answer, but like Moxie, I worship at the altar of common-sense. Up until this point, have you instilled values in him based on your family traditions, your faith, the golden-rule and good-old-fashioned ‘just do the right thing’?  Then keep doing it, only you have to modify your approach slightly. For moms, that might mean more listening to him and less trying to coddle him like when he was younger. Unfortunately, you can’t fix his current problems if all they really are is a bunch of jumbled thoughts in his head. No matter what logic you use or advice you offer, his brain will figure out a way to filter and distort it. For dads, you have to learn to not over-react to his confrontations, even though he’s going to push your buttons. Sometimes walking away is the best course of action, it doesn’t prove he won, it proves you’re the bigger man. For both parents, my advice is let him vent… but within reason. Explain to him that you understand he might be going through a rough time, and that you’re there for him, but that doesn’t give him the right to disrespect you.

While it’s not impossible he was cloned, more than likely he’s still your son. Continue to love him; eventually he’ll come around. But I won’t sugar-coat it, it won’t be for a while and it can get rough.

So. Sounds an awful lot like Ames & Ilg telling us just to get a babysitter to deal with our irrational 3.5-year-olds, doesn't it? Sigh. I've seen other people's lovely teen boys, though, so I know it's possible to make it out alive. Courage.