I'm Raising a Son With a Mood Disorder—Here's What Works for Us

For Kristin Harlan, finding the right help for her son was a long and difficult process—but it paid off.

Kristin Harlan and Son Kaiden
Photo: Courtesy of Kristin Harlan

She was unable to have children biologically, so Kristin Harlan and her husband, of Houston, were delighted when they got the opportunity to adopt two brothers who’d been in foster care. The oldest adjusted to his new home life quickly, but Kaiden, 4, seemed agitated.

“For something as small as not getting a snack he wanted, he’d hit me, bite me, and even yank out chunks of my hair,” says Kristin. “He’d struggle to fall asleep and then would wake up angry. His pupils would be dilated, and I’d brace myself for a bad day. There was nothing I could do to soothe him.”

Kristin thought he should be seeing a child psychiatrist, but she had trouble finding one who’d accept her insurance. Then one day, Kaiden had a tantrum so violent and prolonged that Kristin and her husband took him to a children’s hospital E.R. for help. He was there for 12 days, and doctors wouldn’t release him because he kept having tantrums and would get himself injured. When he did go home, he couldn’t sit still for a minute and could barely sleep or function, says Kristin. Feeling helpless, they readmitted him to the hospital.

With the help of in-patient staff, Kristin connected with a child psychiatrist who diagnosed Kaiden with disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD), which is characterized by frequent irritability and extreme outbursts. She prescribed a mood-stabilizing medication that cut down on his tantrums. But more hospitalizations still followed.

One day, Kaiden hit Kristin on the temple hard enough to knock her down and then announced he was going to the garage to find something to finish her off. “I looked in his eyes, and I could see that he wasn’t himself. It was like he was in a trance,” says Kristin, who got her husband to help restrain Kaiden. After that, Kristin tracked down another, highly recommended child psychiatrist.

“We drive an hour to see him, but he is the key that changed everything,” says Kristin. The doctor discovered that Kaiden metabolizes medicine unusually quickly, and he was able to fine-tune his medication dosage.

Kaiden now goes to weekly therapy with a psychologist, who is helping him work through abuse in his past, and he has an individualized education plan (IEP) at school that targets listening skills and impulse control. “People don’t always see the sweet, kind soul, one who will say, ‘You look so pretty today!’” says Kristin. “I’ve had people ask me if I ever regret adopting him. The answer is no, never. His problems are not his fault. I just thank God I came along to help him.”

Read more from the Parents feature "There's Something Wrong With My Child"

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