Un­der­stand­ing Mood Dis­or­ders


Does your child have a mood dis­or­der? No doubt, many par­ents of teens and tweens would em­phat­i­cally an­swer, “yes,” with­out waiting to hear more.

Ac­cord­ing to Eileen Sch­nei­der, a clin­i­cal so­cial worker with a prac­tice in Te­nafly, “the defin­ing fac­tor of a mood dis­or­der is that it is a sig­nif­i­cant dis­tur­bance in one’s emo­tional make up that is per­sis­tent; sort of how some­one sees the world.”

Dys­th­mia (per­sis­tent de­pres­sion), ma­jor de­pres­sion, bipo­lar dis­or­der (the cy­cling be­tween de­pres­sion and more el­e­vated moods) and dis­rup­tive mood dys­reg­u­la­tion dis­or­der (a per­sis­tent an­gry, ir­ri­ta­ble mood with fre­quent tem­per out­bursts) are all ex­am­ples of mood dis­or­ders. Anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion can be man­i­fes­ta­tions of mood dis­or­ders.

Sch­nei­der ex­plains that in or­der to treat and cope with mood dis­or­ders, it is im­por­tant to look at their ori­gin.

“Mood dis­or­ders can be caused from an im­bal­ance of brain chem­i­cals that reg­u­late mood as well as en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors. Re­peated and se­ri­ous stress is known to se­ri­ously af­fect mood. This could be some­thing like the death of a close fam­ily mem­ber, di­vorce, a sud­den move, etc.,” she says. “This is not to say that ev­ery child who ex­pe­ri­ences these changes will de­velop a mood dis­or­der, but if the child is hav­ing trou­ble cop­ing and does not have the sup­port of a par­ent or out­side help, the com­bi­na­tion of sev­eral fac­tors and the re­peated stress could lead to a mood dis­or­der.”

She says there is also a ge­netic com­po­nent with mood dis­or­ders and cer­tain chil­dren could be pre­dis­posed to their de­vel­op­ment.

“Liv­ing with a par­ent with a mood dis­or­der is also a chal­lenge,” she says.

Teach­ers may be the first ones to no­tice signs that a child has a mood dis­or­der. Dr. Jen Altman, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist with a pri­vate prac­tice in Ho-Ho-Kus, ac­knowl­edges that “be­cause teach­ers see so many dif­fer­ent be­hav­iors, some­times it is dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand what is driv­ing a par­tic­u­lar be­hav­ior, but if it is taken to­gether with a num­ber of dif­fer­ent fac­tors, teach­ers can no­tice cer­tain signs.”

For ex­am­ple, she says, there may be a change in aca­demic func­tion­ing – any kind of drop in grades or change in at­ti­tude to­ward learn­ing.

“There may be a change in the qual­ity of class­room func­tion­ing – is the child no longer par­tic­i­pat­ing? The stu­dent may seem more dis­tractible, dis­tracted, more fa­tigued and ir­ri­ta­ble. The child may be over-re­act­ing to sit­u­a­tions or may be lethar­gic, ex­hibit­ing much lower en­ergy than usual,” she says. “So­cially, these chil­dren might iso­late them­selves; they may not want to com­mu­ni­cate or

con­nect with other stu­dents or adults. Or a child who was for­merly more re­served or bet­ter be­haved may start seek­ing out more at­ten­tion or devel­op­ing an at­ti­tude. When there is a con­stel­la­tion of these fac­tors over a pe­riod of time, such as one month, this is a warn­ing sign.”

Mood dis­or­ders, and the re­sult­ing anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion can cause mis­un­der­stand­ings be­tween friends and po­ten­tially im­pact friend­ships.

Robin Sch­nei­der, who was born and raised in Ber­gen County and is now an ele­men­tary school teacher at an in­de­pen­dent Quaker School in the Philadel­phia area, ex­plains: “A child who with­draws from oth­ers on the play­ground may ap­pear that he or she does not want to play with his or her friends due to lack of in­ter­est. In re­al­ity, the with­drawn child may be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing low self-es­teem and feel that he or she has noth­ing to con­trib­ute to what­ever game is be­ing played, or the child could be feel­ing anx­ious about an as­pect of the game it­self, such as pass­ing the ball cor­rectly.”

As teach­ers may not know what is go­ing on at home, and par­ents may not know what is go­ing on at school, it is im­per­a­tive that they com­mu­ni­cate if and when they no­tice any warn­ing signs of mood dis­or­ders. In ad­di­tion to reach­ing out to par­ents, teach­ers can help stu­dents within the class­room.

“Neg­a­tive at­ten­tion seek­ing be­hav­ior can be dis­rup­tive, but be­fore re­spond­ing puni­tively, try to un­der­stand what is go­ing on with the stu­dent,” Altman says. “It is im­por­tant to reach out to the child and check in.”

As a teacher, Robin Sch­nei­der feels that “es­pe­cially at the ele­men­tary level, it is cru­cial to pro­vide any strug­gling stu­dents with op­por­tu­ni­ties to de­velop his or her ex­pres­sive lan­guage skills as they re­late to feel­ings. If a child is feel­ing de­pressed or anx­ious for the first time, it may be con­fus­ing to him or her what ex­actly is go­ing on. Help­ing the child find the right words to ex­plain how he or she is feel­ing is a good start­ing point for find­ing strate­gies and so­lu­tions for man­ag­ing those feel­ings.”

She says there are many ex­cel­lent pic­ture books about feel­ings, such as The Way I Feel by Janan Cain and

When So­phie Gets An­gry by Molly Bang. “Us­ing posters with fa­cial ex­pres­sions are also a nice tool for help­ing chil­dren un­der­stand what they’re feel­ing,” she says.

Sch­nei­der is also a big fan of daily mind­ful­ness prac­tice for chil­dren. “Breath­ing tech­niques and lis­ten­ing mind­fully to a spe­cific sound are two sim­ple strate­gies that can pro­vide stu­dents with a sense of calm and aware­ness.”

Al­though the scope of this ar­ti­cle is han­dling mood dis­or­ders within the class­room, par­ents need to be ex­tremely vig­i­lant and equip their chil­dren with tools to help them­selves. Dr. Melissa Fior­ito-Graf­man, owner and founder of the Cen­ter for Neu­ropsy­chol­ogy & Psy­chother­apy, with of­fices in Ridgewood and Closter, notes: “As par­ents and pro­fes­sion­als, we can at­test to the chal­lenges of child­hood. How­ever, when you com­pli­cate child­hood with psy­chi­atric con­di­tions, al­beit be­hav­ioral, mood or at­ten­tion dis­or­ders, it cer­tainly can have pro­found im­pli­ca­tions. It is im­por­tant if not im­per­a­tive for par­ents to stay proac­tive ver­sus re­ac­tive.”

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