Childhood can be an emotional roller coaster. So how does a parent know when a kid's mood swings are normal-or a sign of something serious?
Teens are notoriously moody. Even so, Claudia Esteve was worried during her daughter’s sophomore year of high school.
Carmen Hurtado-Esteve had always had a strong, social personality. Now she seemed moody and withdrawn. She’d stopped going out with her friends and had begun eating erratically. She did the bare minimum at school and in other activities, choosing to stay home instead and watch back-to-back episodes of Law & Order. “I couldn’t deal with anything,” Carmen says.
Her mother told her it was normal to have existential doubts at that age. “But her attitude of giving up really bothered me. And there was a lot more drama than a teenager should have,” recalls Claudia, a professional translator and mother of two in Bethesda. “She would tell me she didn’t feel comfortable in herself, and the tears would really be pouring. She would have anxiety attacks related to her school performance. And no matter what I said, it didn’t soothe her.
“But there were good days,” Claudia says, “and I would start to wonder if I was exaggerating or overreacting—or if I was seeing something that really needed attention.”
Four percent of children between the ages of 8 and 15 in the United States have been diagnosed with a mood disorder such as major depression, dysthymia (a chronic but mild form of depression), or bipolar disorder (bouts of mania or hypomania, alternating with episodes of depression). And 14 percent of 13- to 18-year-olds develop a mood disorder at some point during childhood, with girls more vulnerable than boys, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda.
Given those statistics, any parent might wonder if a child’s erratic moods are normal—or a sign of something more serious.
In children, “normal development is ironically development that is inconsistent—it has to do with the hardwiring of their brains,” says Joel Adler, a clinical psychologist in Chevy Chase who specializes in the assessment and treatment of children and adolescents.