THE SPECIAL PARENT
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.”