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Everyone can experience a low mood at some point. We can’t expect the children, young people, and adults in our settings to always be happy and smiley. Stages of physical and emotional development can trigger periods of sadness and low mood and certain experiences or memories can generate negative thoughts which feel hard to shift.
We can use lots of words to describe low moods. Some are more positive than others. It’s easy for us to use words like grumpy, miserable, having a bad attitude, surly, always moaning, or never happy. But being mindful of our language both with the individual and with our colleagues ensures we are respectful and focus on their needs.
These behaviours are clues, like pieces of a puzzle, that can help us understand an individual’s emotional state. Understanding whether there is a specific trigger for the behaviour, or if it’s a function of feeling anxious or generally unhappy, can help you decide how best to respond.
Possible reasons for low mood
Children, young people, and adults are often unhappy or anxious because of changes in their lives. They may seem unhappy because they’re worried about moving home, starting at a new school or setting, or changes to their family situation. It can also be little changes, like a different member of staff or a deviation from their usual routine. Puberty can also contribute to huge behavioural changes.
Talk to the individual about what you’ve noticed. Often, they are just looking for a listening ear, so avoid trying to solve all their problems for them. You can explain how their behaviour is making you and those around you feel, but avoid making them feel guilty for feeling low. Instead, focus on helping them find better ways to cope when they’re feeling worried about something.
You may notice that periods of low mood happen at a particular time or location. Physical feelings of hunger, thirst, and being tired can have significant effects on an individual’s behaviour. Loud, bright, or crowded spaces can overwhelm many individuals. If you spot a pattern, you can make simple changes to help them prepare, cope with, or avoid the situation.
How to support a low mood
Emotions and behaviours can escalate when an individual knows someone is watching; perhaps making them feel self-conscious or embarrassed. Avoid publicly quizzing them about their mood. If possible, take them to a quieter space, without an audience, before you talk.
If they’re not ready to talk with you, that’s fine. Show them you’re available when they want to open up about it. They also might prefer to speak with someone else about this. That’s also okay and not something to take personally. The important thing is that the individual has someone they feel they can talk to.
Addressing behaviours driven by low mood
If an individual has behaved inappropriately during a period of low mood, remind them how to communicate with others in a safe, respectful way. This is a long process, not a quick fix. Use visuals, social stories, and other prompts to help them learn healthier responses when they feel this way in the future.
Whilst empathising with the individual and explaining that low mood is something everyone will experience, stress that this doesn’t mean they can behave unkindly towards those around them or dangerously. For example, feeling low doesn’t mean it’s okay to hurt someone.
Model a calm stance as you talk to the individual; lower your voice and pace and avoid over complicated instructions or explanations. Remember to focus on one thing so not to digress into a rant or lecture about what they should or should not be doing. For example, if somebody has not said ‘thank you’ when given a plate of food and then not put their cutlery in the sink, is the important thing addressing this behaviour, or understanding why they didn’t do it? If a behaviour does warrant talking about, address just one of the incidents so not to bombard them with negative comments at a time when they are already feeling low. Keep the conversation positive rather than trying to make them feel guilty about their behaviour.
If a child, young person, or adult in your care frequently exhibits low mood, or you notice a sudden and dramatic change in their behaviour, it’s important to share your concerns with your colleagues, and, where appropriate, parents and carers. It may be necessary to seek additional advice outside agencies.