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Mood Disorders in Parents: What to Do and How to Tell

Blog Mood Disorders in Parents: What to Do and How to Tell

Concerns about a child’s state can trickle down to caregivers, spurring such issues as anxiety or depression—behaviors which can boomerang back and be potentially detrimental to the child.


Concerns about potential mental health issues in a child can create a maelstrom of emotions in a family and coping can sometimes be a challenge. Some diagnoses like OCD, ADHD, bipolar disorder and depression can be difficult for some parents to come to terms with. “It can be an extremely stressful time for caregivers, since the child’s behaviors can also create a ripple effect,” explains Nerissa Bauer, MD, behavioral pediatrician at Indiana University Health.

Her advice: “Whenever I see a family for the first time, I always make sure to ask the caregivers ‘how are you handling this?’ It’s a critical piece. Clinicians sometimes forget to take a pause and ask how mom or dad is feeling and how it’s affecting their family’s rhythm.”

Why is this essential? Concerns about a child’s state can trickle down to caregivers, spurring such issues as anxiety or depression—behaviors which can boomerang back and be potentially detrimental to the child. “It’s important to understand the contextual factors that are happening in a child’s environment since these can directly or indirectly affect that child’s wellbeing. It’s hard to get this information into an appointment. It’s intimate and not an easy space to unpack in a short amount of time,” says Dr. Bauer.

What’s more, she says, with mental health disorders there is a spectrum. “There’s the diagnostic manual, containing diagnosable formal mood disorders where patients meet formal parameters for conditions like ADHD or OCD,” explains Dr. Bauer. “And then there are the more sub-clinical symptoms, where the issues don’t quite reach clinical significance but they still affect people day to day. It’s a grey area, so we try to figure out, how are these symptoms are affecting you and your ability to do what you need to do every day or take care of your child? We don’t want to discount that. The symptoms are real and we need to be sensitive enough to understand them and offer referrals to get help so we can start seeing a difference.”

Support groups can be a source of comfort. “When it comes to pediatrics, our first line treatment is always supporting the parents,” explains Dr. Bauer. “Special Kids, Family Voices and INSOURCE, in Indiana, these are all great resources. Each organization has a different function but all support parents that have kids with special needs, so we regularly tell parents about them.”

Also important, she says, is being pragmatic. “You have to help the family understand what makes sense for them in a conducive way. So, I’ve developed an ADHD group visit intervention at my clinic. They meet at the office. Parents meet in one room and kids in the other room and it helps families understand that they are not alone and it supplies social support,” says Dr. Bauer.

Not interested in attending a support group? Consider reaching out to someone in your inner circle for support. “It could be a pastor, a teacher, an aunt, sister,” says Dr. Bauer. “Someone you feel close to and comfortable sharing with.”

Statistically speaking, she says, parental mood disorders are common. “There are a lot of intricacies about prevalence, so if you don’t look for it, you likely won’t know,” she says. “That’s why we have validated screening instruments and have to ask questions. Otherwise, clinicians can miss those moms and dads that are struggling beneath the surface.”

-- By Sarah Burns

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