Mood disorders are defined as a range of debilitating symptoms and changes in an individual’s emotional state. The difference between normal, occasional unhappiness and a diagnosable mood disorder lies in the intensity and frequency of the thoughts and feelings experienced. Both children of all ages and adults suffer from mood problems such as depression or bipolar disorder, but the associated symptoms manifest in very different ways across developmental phases and ages.
Clinicians and researchers believe that mood disorders in children are actually under-diagnosed in children, especially since children often present with symptoms that may not at first be linked to low mood or depression. An undiagnosed and untreated mood disorder may have dire effects on the child’s emotional, social and academic development and also puts them at risk for developing other problems and psychological disorders.
Signs and symptoms
The signs and symptoms associated with mood disorders in children will vary depending on the child’s age and also on the type/ classification of the disorder. However, overall symptoms that parents and caregivers can look out for include:
- The child appears sad, depressed, irritable, and angry or they have an elevated mood that appears more intense than usual. The mood also lasts for a long period of time and occurs more frequently than one would expect.
- A lack of motivation or enjoyment when he/she engages in activities that they previously enjoyed or participated in readily.
- Social difficulty or strained relationships with family members or friend/peers.
- Changes in sleeping patterns.
- Changes in appetite and weight.
- The child presents with a lack of energy and noticeable fatigue.
- Academic difficulty in school, and/or problems with concentration and focus.
- Many physical ailments and complaints, such as headaches or a sore tummy.
- Low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness.
- Excessive feelings of guilt.
- Temper tantrums or outbursts.
- Struggle with decision making process.
- Irritability, hostility and aggression
- High risk or rebellious behaviour (especially in tweens and adolescents)
- Threatening to run away from home or school
- Hypersensitivity to perceived failure or rejection
- The expression of suicidal thoughts or intent, as well as self harm (cutting, scratching or burning themselves).
Parents who are concerned about their child or adolescent’s low mood or emotional state can consult with a psychologist regarding mood disorders in children. Before any treatment plan is implemented, the therapist will consider elements such as the child’s physical and medical history, emotional and developmental history, significant trauma or other events in the child’s life and current environmental stressors. All of these factors may cause and contribute to the child’s mood problems. Input from teachers may also be requested. Treatment can help manage the current episode, reduce the severity of symptoms, and help to prevent the child from suffering symptoms of depression in future. Therapy can also enhance a child’s normal growth and development and improve his or her quality of life and relationships in general.
Individual therapy, where the child sees the psychologist for one-on-one sessions, is often recommended. Through play, art, story-telling and talking, the therapist will understand more about the child’s emotional life and experiences. The child is able to make meaning of his or her feelings, and also learn coping skills that can help them to deal with changes in their mood in a healthy way. Sometimes, family therapy is recommended, where parents or guardians will also gain insight, and learn methods to help their child manage mood and behaviour problems.
The child may also be referred to a paediatric psychiatrist, who can assess the necessity for medication to help in managing the mood disorder. Since brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin are directly involved in managing our moods, an imbalance in these hormones may lead to symptoms of a mood disorder.
What can parents do to help?
Parents often feel hopeless and overwhelmed when their child struggles with symptoms of a mood disorder. There are some basic guidelines to keep in mind when supporting your child through this difficult experience:
- Place an emphasis on a healthy lifestyle and routine, with predictable bedtimes, balanced meals and regular exercise for everyone in the family. Be flexible, but try to maintain a normal routine.
- One-on-one time with your child should be prioritized, with praise for good behaviour and positive feedback and an emphasis on the child’s strengths and attempts at bravery and coping. Do not punish them for lack of emotional progress.
- Talk to your child about bullying. This is often a leading cause of depression and adjustment problems in children. Provide a safe space for your child to tell you about his or her experiences, without fearing that they will get in trouble or be judged.
- Reduce stress where possible. Short-term changes in the amount of schoolwork, chores, or household activities may be needed. Work with your child’s school or teacher to create an understanding and supportive environment.
- Help your child relax with physical and creative activities, such as going for a walk in nature or painting a picture.
- Help your child learn to describe their feelings. For example, I feel worried today because I have a lot of homework.
- Communicate and form an alliance with your child’s therapist. In this way, you can help them to practice coping skills at home and receive the necessary guidance and professional feedback.
- Break down problems or tasks into smaller steps so your child can be successful. This will help them to feel less overwhelmed and more accomplished.
- Watch out for self-harm behaviour, talk about death or suicide. Make sure you have an emergency plan in place with your child’s therapist and doctor.
Are you experiencing any of the above? We’d love to read your comments below.
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