Types of Mood Disorders in Children

Mood disorders can take various forms, from major depressive disorder to less common conditions, such as bipolar disorder and disruptive mood dysregulation disorder. Specialists at the Child Study Center, part of Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone, can help determine whether your child has a mood disorder and, if so, how to improve his or her symptoms.

Major Depressive Disorder

Major depressive disorder—commonly known as depression—is characterized by chronic feelings of sadness, guilt, or worthlessness. Children and teenagers with depression may be irritable and moody, complain that they’re bored all the time, and have little interest in friends and activities they once enjoyed.

Other signs of depression include weight loss or gain, sleeping too much or too little, and thoughts of death or wanting to die. Parents or teachers may also notice that grades drop and the child has difficulty concentrating.

A combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors causes depression. Depression runs in families, but it can also occur in people without a family history of the condition.

Stressful situations, such as moving, changing schools, relationship problems, or the death of a loved one, may trigger a depressive episode. However, an episode may occur without an obvious trigger.

Children and adolescents of any age can be depressed, but the condition is more common in adolescents than in younger children. Depression affects an equal number of boys and girls in elementary school, but by adolescence it affects twice as many girls as boys.

It’s common for adolescents to feel sad or cranky from time to time. If the feelings pass, your teenager may be experiencing normal mood swings.

The irritability and moodiness typical of teenagers can be difficult to distinguish from depression. If you’re concerned your child may be depressed, our experts can evaluate his or her symptoms and determine if treatment is appropriate.

Persistent Depressive Disorder

The most prominent sign of persistent depressive disorder is a consistent depressed or irritable mood lasting for one year or longer. This disorder resembles major depressive disorder but differs in that symptoms are fewer, less severe, and last longer, sometimes for years.

Because of the long duration and lower intensity of symptoms associated with persistent depressive disorder, children and those around them may not recognize that they have this condition. Many people simply grow accustomed to the symptoms.

Bipolar Disorder

A child or adolescent with bipolar disorder experiences cyclical swings between depression and mania, which is marked by feelings of grandiosity, excessive exuberance and silliness, and chronic, severe irritability.

Bipolar disorder may be diagnosed if your child experiences a manic episode in which he or she shows a dramatic change in mood and seems unusually happy or excited. He or she may talk excessively, rapidly, or loudly, and change the topic of conversation frequently or abruptly.

The child may also have unrealistically high self-esteem, ambition, and increased activity. Other signs of mania include increased energy, a decreased need for sleep, losing touch with reality, and risky behavior, such as drug or alcohol abuse, reckless driving, or sexual promiscuity.

During a depressive episode, a person may experience irritability, persistent sadness, or frequent crying. He or she may have thoughts of death or suicide and lose interest in favorite activities. Other signs of depression include a low energy level, fatigue, poor concentration, and a change in eating or sleeping habits.

Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder

Occasional temper tantrums are a normal part of growing up, but if your child is chronically angry or irritable, or has frequent, intense, and ongoing temper tantrums, he or she may have disruptive mood dysregulation disorder.

This condition is characterized by frequent angry outbursts that seem grossly out of proportion with a given situation. The outbursts occur, on average, three or more times each week for one year or more. Between outbursts, children with the disorder are persistently irritable or angry.

Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder occurs more commonly in boys than in girls.

Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder is a newly defined diagnosis that was developed to better characterize children who are chronically, severely irritable. These children may have been previously, and incorrectly, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, even though they did not meet the full criteria for this diagnosis.

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