Mood River: Highs and Lows of Mood Disorders in Children

The murky waters of mood disorder

The murky waters of mood disorder

Recently I asked “Ashley” to share advice on my blog. Ashley is a colleague and parent to an 11-year-old girl diagnosed with Mood Disorder.

 I have learned a lot about mood disorders and was blown away by her candor.

1) Can you describe “mood disorder” and its symptoms?

Last spring, my daughter was diagnosed with ADHD and we put her on a stimulant. She began having rages, getting verbally aggressive (threatening to kill people) and physically aggressive (biting, hitting, kicking) family members to the point that she left bruises and other marks. We took her off the medication and the rages decreased for a while, but returned along with ADHD symptoms that interfered with school.

We tried another stimulant and the rages increased. Her pediatrician suggested that because she was raging on stimulants that he highly suspected that she had a mood disorder.  At his suggestion, I read the book The Bipolar Child and cried because the symptoms described in the book were almost a verbatim description of my daughter. 

2) Why were you surprised by this revelation?

I was surprised that the way that bipolar presents in children is very different from the way it looks in adults. Some of the symptoms that resonated with me:

  • severe irritability
  • night terrors
  • raging
  • oppositional behaviour
  • rapid cycling (going from giddy to irritated very quickly and back again)
  • sensory issues
  • carb cravings (my daughter would binge on sweets and bread)
  • hyper-sexuality

Another trait exhibited by my daughter was that she didn’t show her rages and violence to anyone outside the family and I was her main target.

3) Please provide some insight into the relationship between ADHD and mood disorders and how they’re sometimes confused.

According to the book The Bipolar Child, one-third of the children diagnosed with ADHD actually have early onset bipolar. Many symptoms of bipolar overlap with ADHD, such as being impulsive, emotionally volatile, hyperactive and distracted. When I was reading Bipolar Child for the first time, the description in temper tantrums between children with ADHD and children with mood disorders was what finally convinced me that my daughter was bipolar.

Bipolar temper tantrums can often last for hours, can involve destruction or violence and are typically triggered by not getting what they want. The book described that ADHD tantrums typically last 20-30 minutes and are caused by sensory or emotional stimulation. I thought about the previous evening and how my daughter had spent over two hours hitting us, screaming and chasing after us and realized that my daughter was bipolar.

4) What advice can you offer parents?

My biggest advice is to find support. I found the forums and support groups at The Balanced Mind to provide me great information on both the medical side and the coping side.

At first I was really scared to tell anyone about my daughter’s diagnosis and even more about her repeatedly hurting me. I would wear long sleeves to cover the bite marks and bruises and worry that someone would see. But then I shared with trusted friends what we were going through and was very surprised that instead of judgment, I received love and support.

My other advice is to find the right team of doctors and therapists. It took several tries to find the right fit for our family and my daughter’s situation, but we finally found a neuropsychiatric that has been lifesaving for us. We also began working with a behavioural therapist to help our whole family learn strategies to deal with the bipolar symptoms.

5) How do you and your family (and your child) best cope with this mental illness?

When she is raging, we try to remind ourselves that this is the bipolar talking, not our daughter. We also make sure that every member of our family gets time to enjoy the things that make them happy and get a break from my daughter. We also all meet with a therapist to talk about our feelings of living with the disease in our family.

6) Anything else you’d like to add?

If you suspect that your child has a mood disorder, get him or her evaluated as soon as possible. Life has gotten dramatically better once we found the right medication and have begun learning to understand the disease.

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