Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens: A Parent's Guide

Introduction

All parents can relate to the many changes their kids go through as they grow up. But sometimes it's hard to tell if a child is just going through a "phase," or perhaps showing signs of something more serious.

Recently, doctors have been diagnosing more children with bipolar disorder, sometimes called manic-depressive illness. But what does this illness really mean for a child?

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood and energy. It can also make it hard for someone to carry out day-to-day tasks, such as going to school or hanging out with friends. Symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe. They are different from the normal ups and downs that everyone goes through from time to time. They can result in damaged relationships, poor school performance, and even suicide. But bipolar disorder can be treated, and people with this illness can lead full and productive lives.

Bipolar disorder often develops in a person's late teens or early adult years, but some people have their first symptoms during childhood. At least half of all cases start before age 25.

What are common symptoms of bipolar disorder in children and teens?

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Youth with bipolar disorder experience unusually intense emotional states that occur in distinct periods called "mood episodes." An overly joyful or overexcited state is called a manic episode, and an extremely sad or hopeless state is called a depressive episode. Sometimes, a mood episode includes symptoms of both mania and depression. This is called a mixed state. People with bipolar disorder also may be explosive and irritable during a mood episode.

Extreme changes in energy, activity, sleep, and behavior go along with these changes in mood. Symptoms of bipolar disorder are described below.

Symptoms of mania include:

Mood Changes

  • Being in an overly silly or joyful mood that's unusual for your child. It is different from times when he or she might usually get silly and have fun.
  • Having an extremely short temper. This is an irritable mood that is unusual.

Behavioral Changes

  • Sleeping little but not feeling tired
  • Talking a lot and having racing thoughts
  • Having trouble concentrating, attention jumping from one thing to the next in an unusual way
  • Talking and thinking about sex more often
  • Behaving in risky ways more often, seeking pleasure a lot, and doing more activities than usual.

Symptoms of depression include:

Mood Changes

  • Being in a sad mood that lasts a long time
  • Losing interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • Feeling worthless or guilty.

Behavioral Changes

  • Complaining about pain more often, such as headaches, stomach aches, and muscle pains
  • Eating a lot more or less and gaining or losing a lot of weight
  • Sleeping or oversleeping when these were not problems before
  • Losing energy
  • Recurring thoughts of death or suicide.

It's normal for almost every child or teen to have some of these symptoms sometimes. These passing changes should not be confused with bipolar disorder.

Symptoms of bipolar disorder are not like the normal changes in mood and energy that everyone has now and then. Bipolar symptoms are more extreme and tend to last for most of the day, nearly every day, for at least one week. Also, depressive or manic episodes include moods very different from a child's normal mood, and the behaviors described in the chart above may start at the same time. Sometimes the symptoms of bipolar disorder are so severe that the child needs to be treated in a hospital.

In addition to mania and depression, bipolar disorder can cause a range of moods, as shown on the scale below. One side of the scale includes severe depression, moderate depression, and mild low mood. Moderate depression may cause less extreme symptoms, and mild low mood is called dysthymia when it is chronic or long-term. In the middle of the scale is normal or balanced mood.

Range of moods in bipolar disorder
Range of moods in bipolar disorder

Sometimes, a child may have more energy and be more active than normal, but not show the severe signs of a full-blown manic episode. When this happens, it is called hypomania, and it generally lasts for at least four days in a row. Hypomania causes noticeable changes in behavior, but does not harm a child's ability to function in the way mania does.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/26/2014

Patient Comments

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Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens - Symptoms Question: If you are under 20, please describe the symptoms associated with your bipolar disorder.
Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens - Risk Question: Please discuss any family history of bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses.
Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens - Detection Question: Describe the events that led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder in you (if you are a teen) or your child.
Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens - Treatment Question: For parents of patients or teens: Describe the types of treatment you are receiving for bipolar disorder.

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