Types of Childhood Mood Disorders

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Childhood mood disorders are mental health conditions that affect a child’s emotional state. When a child is experiencing a mood disorder, they will likely have thoughts and feelings that are intense, persistent, and hard to manage. These go beyond mad moods or occasional temper tantrums.

An estimated 14.3% of children, ages 13 to 18, have a mood disorder, and an estimated 11.2% have severe impairment. Mood disorders are also prevalent in approximately 38% of ADHD patients.

Common Childhood Mood Disorders

Mental health conditions, such as ADHD, anxiety, and mood disorders, are common among children, but far too many go undiagnosed and untreated. 

The most common childhood mood disorders include:

  • Major Depressive Disorder: A child may experience a persistent depressed, irritable mood lasting for two weeks or longer. 
  • Bipolar Disorder: A child may experience temporary periods of elevated mood followed by periods of depressed or bad mood.
  • Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder: This occurs before menstruation and may include irritability or depressive symptoms.
  • Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder: A child may be unable to control their behavior and exhibit persistent irritability. 
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder: This often occurs during specific times of the year, including fall and winter, when the daylight hours change, at which time a child may experience depressive symptoms. 
  • Substance-Induced Mood Disorder: This can be triggered by medication, exposure to toxins, or substance use and lead to depressive symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms of Mood Disorders in Children

Children don’t always exhibit the same signs as an adult and every child is unique, so signs and symptoms will vary from child to child, and be impacted by age, biological makeup, and circumstance. 

  • Feeling irritable, angry, or sad on a persistent basis 
  • Physical complaints, such as headaches or fatigue
  • Significant changes in sleep or eating patterns
  • Loss of energy
  • Low self-esteem
  • Difficulty in school or with peers
  • Recurrent temper outbursts
  • Increased energy with racing thoughts or fast speech
  • Rebellious or risky behavior
  • Threats of running away or running away
  • Suicidal thoughts or feelings

“If your child is persistently sad or irritable for two weeks or more resulting in missed school days or a decrease in academic performance, this coupled with a cluster of key signs and symptoms could be an indicator of an underlying mood disorder,” said Jasmin Scott-Hawkins, MD, MPH, Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychiatrist. “When a bad mood begins to threaten safety or lead to functional impairment, it’s wise to speak with your pediatrician for guidance.”

Causes of a Mood Disorder

Any child can develop a mood disorder, no matter their background or identity. However, studies have shown that genetics play a significant role in the development of mood disorders. Heritability accounts for approximately 35% of major depression cases and 60-93% of bipolar disorder cases in children and adolescents.

Environmental factors can also play a role. If a child is living in a high stress environment, engaging in unhealthy lifestyle choices such as poor eating habits, poor sleep hygiene, unhealthy social media use, excessive screen time, or substance abuse, Dr. Scott-Hawkins explains, this can worsen a mood disorder.

Maternal use of tobacco products, alcohol, or illicit substances, even antidepressants, during pregnancy, can also increase a child’s risk of developing a mood disorder.

Diagnosis of a Childhood Mood Disorder

When diagnosing children, it’s important to visit a mental health professional who specializes in childhood mental health disorders, such as a child psychiatrist. Before recommending treatment, this clinical expert will conduct a full behavioral evaluation of the child. They may also recommend testing to rule out other conditions. 

An in-depth behavioral health assessment would  evaluate:

  • An overall health and medical history
  • Symptoms
  • Behavior at home, school, or peers
  • Environmental factors that might be impacting the child’s life, such as home situation, parental or guardian relationship, etc.
  • Input from teachers or guidance counselors
  • Past experiences with medications or therapies

Treatments for Mood Disorders

When treating children for a mood disorder, Dr. Scott-Hawkins recommends team-based collaboration between parents or guardians, teachers, therapists, pediatricians, and specialists, such as child psychiatrists or neurologists. 

Some common mood disorder treatments include:


The APA recommends psychotherapy as the first line of treatment for children with mood disorders. This can include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and mindfulness-based interventions. These therapies can help children (and their guardians) better understand the connection between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors – and how best to manage them.


Depending on the childhood mood disorder and severity of the condition, medication may be recommended for the child. Some of the most common medications used for mood disorder treatment include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), also as antidepressants, or mood stabilizers, including lithium, anticonvulsants, and antipsychotics

When treating a child, Dr. Scott-Hawkins recommends maintaining healthy communication with your child, providing them a safe space to express changes in their mood. 

Coping Strategies for Children

Children may not be able to identify or explain their symptoms, so it’s important to keep an open line of communication, help reduce stressors in the home, surround the child with a strong support system, and introduce them to positive habits, such as exercise, meditation, or yoga. 

You can also incorporate the following into your child’s life:

  • Help them maintain a consistent, full night’s sleep. Turning off devices an hour before bed and encouraging your child to go to bed at the same time every day can help with this.
  • Encourage your child to socialize and engage with others, so they have a strong support system across all areas of their life. You can also sign them up for activities. Just make sure you give them downtime. 
  • Teach children stress management tools, such as using the 5-4-3-2-1 method or other grounding techniques. 

If a child has a mood disorder, it won’t go away on its own. However, symptoms can be lessened with treatment and the ongoing support of a parent or guardian. When dealing with mood disorders, educate yourself on signs, symptoms, and challenges faced by the child. 

A Note from Verywell

“If you notice a decline in your child’s functioning, speaking with a healthcare provider is the first step to building a team to support your child’s mental and emotional wellbeing,” said. Dr. Scott-Hawkins. 

A childhood mood disorder can be hard to identify. If your child is experiencing a change in mood, try to be patient, supportive, and non-judgmental – and don’t be afraid to speak with a health or mental health professional. Early intervention can help prevent a worsening of the condition and improve your child’s symptoms.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sarah Sheppard
Sarah Sheppard is a writer, editor, ghostwriter, writing instructor, and advocate for mental health, women's issues, and more.