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Mood Disorders in Children: Signs, Symptoms, and Treatments

Are you wondering whether your child might be struggling with a mood disorder? Learn the signs, symptoms, and treatments for mood disorders in children.

Reports show that mood disorders in children are on the rise. One study revealed that depression and anxiety increased by 7% and 24% between 2016 and 2019. 

Children tend to be less emotionally regulated than adults. As a parent, it can be hard to decipher whether your child is just having a string of bad days, or if you're witnessing the signs of a mood disorder. 

Children are often less able to talk about their emotions than adults. They might not have the words to express how they're feeling. They may also have a harder time stepping back from their emotions and evaluating them. 

If you're asking yourself the question, "is my child suffering from a mood disorder?" the first thing to do is get informed. Continue reading to find out more about some of the common mood disorders in children. 

Major Depressive Disorder

Also known as clinical depression, major depressive disorder is characterized by depressive episodes. Major depressive episodes typically last for 2 weeks or more.

During a depressive episode, children may exhibit the following:

  • Sadness
  • Hopelessness
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in activities and pursuits
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Fatigue
  • Weight gain
  • Weight loss

All children are different, and symptoms can vary depending on their unique temperament and physiology. 

Typical treatments for major depressive disorder include interpersonal therapy, behavioral therapy, and family therapy. 

Dysthymia (Persistent Depressive Disorder)

Persistent depressive disorder is also characterized by sadness and irritability, but it differs from major depressive disorder in two key ways. Instead of experiencing depressive episodes, children with dysthymia usually suffer ongoing, low-grade depressed moods. 

The emotional lows aren't usually as severe, but they are more persistent and last for over a year. To receive a dysthymia diagnosis, children need to display symptoms for over two years. 

Although dysthymia doesn't usually trigger sharp mood swings, it is still a serious and chronic disorder. Because it does not "let up" it can be more debilitating in a lot of ways. 

Dysthymia is often treated with the same therapies used for major depressive disorder. 

Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DDM)

As its name suggests, disruptive mood dysregulation disorder is characterized by angry, emotional outbursts. 

Most children have emotional outbursts from time to time, but those without DDM are better able to regulate their emotions. 

Children with DDM tend to have frequent emotional meltdowns and display intense temper outbursts. They may also display persistent irritability and anger. Outbursts are frequent, typically occurring multiple times a week. 

Emotional outbursts are usually out of proportion to the "cause." They may involve both verbal and physical aggression and be inappropriate for the child's age. 

Managing DDM in a child can be very challenging for parents, but there are many steps you can take to work on the issue. Psychotherapy and parent training are two of the most common treatments.  

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is another mental health condition that can affect children. Young people aren't frequently diagnosed with this disorder, but symptoms can manifest in children and teens.

Previously, bipolar disorder was known as manic depressive illness. This is because it's characterized by swings between manic episodes and depressive episodes. 

Manic Episodes

Manic episodes are periods of elevated mood. The person usually appears "overly" happy, highly stimulated, animated, and over-energized. In children, this can manifest in hyperactivity and a strong inability to concentrate. 

They may be irritable, very talkative, switch topics constantly, and have unrealistic levels of self-esteem. For instance, they may believe they have superpowers. 

If your child is suffering from bipolar disorder, they might need less sleep. Increased risk-taking behavior is also common during manic episodes. In teenagers, this can trigger behavior they wouldn't usually partake in, such as drug or alcohol abuse, promiscuous behavior, or reckless driving. 

Depressive Episodes

Children with bipolar disorder usually also experience periods when they display symptoms of depression. This can manifest as:

  • Low energy
  • Poor concentration
  • Boredom
  • Irritability
  • Low spirits
  • Changes in sleep, including oversleeping and trouble falling asleep
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Eating habit changes
  • Reduced enjoyment of activities that would usually bring them pleasure

Most of these symptoms are similar to those that occur in major and persistent depressive disorder, DDM, and ADHD.

Thanks to this, bipolar disorder diagnosis is usually complex. It typically involves prolonged periods of careful observation and a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation.

Treatment for bipolar disorder often focuses on education that equips the child and their family with the right mood disorder coping strategies. Psychotherapy is invaluable for helping the child to understand themself, build self-esteem, manage stress, and sustain their relationships. 

Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder

Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) is a relatively rare disorder that affects teenagers before and during the menstrual cycle. It is a severe form of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and can often trigger debilitating symptoms, including:

  • Extreme mood swings
  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Panic attacks
  • Appetite changes
  • Food cravings
  • Feelings of overwhelm
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Headaches

Because PMDD includes symptoms like depression and anxiety, we have included it in this list of mood disorders in children.

However, most experts agree that PMDD is an endocrine, hormone-related disorder, rather than a mental illness. Because of this, some sufferers can experience a reduction in symptoms through diet and lifestyle changes that promote hormonal balance. 

Psychotherapy does not address the underlying cause of PMDD but it can help children to achieve better emotional regulation during this period. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal affective disorder, also known as seasonal depression, causes feelings of depression during certain times of the year. Suffers typically experience depression during the fall and winter months when there is less sunlight.

Shorter days and less light trigger chemical changes in the brain. In response to long hours of darkness, the body produces more melatonin, which is one possible cause of SAD. Decreased daylight can also cause serotonin levels to drop. 

However, SAD symptoms aren't just confined to winter. Roughly 10% of suffers experience depression during the summer instead of the winter. They may also experience insomnia and loss of appetite. 

The symptoms of SAD are usually present for roughly 40% of the year. Seasonal affective disorder isn't very common in children, and only affects 0.5-3% of the general population. 

However, if your child exhibits signs of depression in the fall and winter, there is a chance that they're suffering from SAD. Additionally, SAD often occurs in conjunction with other types of mood disorders. 

Although it affects less than 3% of the population, 10-20% of people with major depressive disorder and 25% of people with bipolar disorder also suffer from SAD.

In children, SAD often co-occurs with ADHD, eating disorders, anxiety, and panic disorders. 

Another important thing to know about SAD is that it doesn't necessarily happen every year. Approximately 50% of individuals do not suffer from mood disorder signs in successive winters. 

Causes of Mood Disorders in Children

If your child is displaying mood disorder signs, one of your first questions is probably why. What is the root cause?

There are many potential causes of mood disorders, and there may be a combination of factors at play. 

Research has shown that genetics can play a fundamental role in mood disorders. Children with relatives who suffer from mood disorders could be at an increased risk. 

Environmental and emotional factors can also be a trigger. High levels of stress, family turmoil, and traumatic events are often associated with the development of mood disorders in children. 

Things like bullying at school may also be a fundamental trigger for depression symptoms.

Finally, substances can be a factor in certain types of mood disorders in children. These include things like:

  • Toxins
  • Certain medications
  • Excess sugar

Scientific research is revealing that sugar can affect brain development and result in altered behaviors, reduced emotional regulation, disrupted sleep, and mental distress. 

Mood Disorder Treatments

If your child is displaying mood disorder signs, take heart. Mood disorders can be tricky to diagnose, but there are many effective treatments. 

Most mood disorder treatment programs for children usually include:

  • Individual therapy: assists children to work through trauma and root issues
  • Family therapy: improves communication and resolves conflicts
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: addresses negative thought patterns and assists in altering unwanted behaviors

One of the keys to success in mood disorder treatments is consistency. Most children will need a certain level of ongoing therapy to help them manage their disorder. 

If your family has a busy schedule, making time to travel to therapy sessions can be tough. Here at Triangle Square, we know how important consistency is, which is why we offer a convenient digital therapy model

Through us, children can access the care they need from the safety and comfort of their homes. For parents, this cuts down on travel time and costs, making consistent therapy easier to achieve. 

Effective Therapy for Mood Disorders in Children Made Easy

Mood disorders in children can interfere with everything from their physical well-being to their education and social life. 

Is your child displaying the above mood disorder signs? If so, it's critical that you seek out therapy for them. 

In today's age, taking your child to therapy doesn't have to be hard or stressful. 

Our fully digital format means your child can receive therapy from a dedicated team of professionals, without having to leave home. Our therapy model isn't just convenient, it's also highly engaging. 

Wondering how to get started? Simply book a free evaluation. One of our compassionate agents will then determine which clinician would be a good fit for your child. From here, a licensed clinician will work with you to determine what therapy methods will work for your child's individual needs

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