Results taken from research that is both clinical and family based has indicated that bipolar disorder, also called manic-depressive illness, does indeed occur in our children and adolescents. However, childhood bipolar disorder is very often difficult to diagnose.
One reason it’s so difficult to put a name to this disorder in children is that it does not fit precisely into the list of symptoms that has been established for adults. Another reason is that the childhood symptoms of bipolar disorder can resemble or even co-occur with other common mental disorders that also begin in childhood and adolescence.
Another thing to keep in mind is that often times the symptoms of bipolar disorder in kids and teens alike may be initially mistaken for normal emotions and behaviors. This is especially true when it comes to teenagers since as we are all very well aware many of our adolescents can at times exhibit some outrageous extremes in moods and behaviors and still be considered quite normal.
But unlike normal mood changes, bipolar disorder significantly impairs a child or teenagers ability to function effectively in school, with their peers, in extra curricular activities and in their homes with their own families. So let’s take a look first at some of the characteristics associated with bipolar disorder in general and then some of the symptoms more associated with the illness in childhood.
Bipolar Disorder Symptoms and Diagnosis
Bipolar disorder in general is a serious mental illness characterized by recurrent episodes that shift between periods of depression and mania, or even mixed moments of these two symptom states. These episodes are characterized by unusual and extreme shifts in mood, energy, and behavior that interfere significantly with normal, healthy functioning.
Manic symptoms include:
- Severe changes in mood, either extremely irritable or overly silly and elated
- Overly-inflated self-esteem; grandiosity
- Increased energy
- Decreased need for sleep, ability to go with very little or no sleep for days without tiring
- Increased talking, talking too much, too fast; changes topics too quickly; cannot be interrupted
- Distractibility, attention moves constantly from one thing to the next
- Hyper sexuality, increased sexual thoughts, feelings, or behaviors; use of explicit sexual language
- Increased goal-directed activity or physical agitation
- Disregard of risk, excessive involvement in risky behaviors or activities
Depressive symptoms include:
- Persistent sad or irritable mood
- Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
- Significant change in appetite or body weight
- Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
- Physical agitation or slowing
- Loss of energy
- Feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt
- Difficulty concentrating
- Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
Symptoms Characteristic of Children and Adolescents
When manic, children and teens are more likely to be irritable and prone to destructive outbursts than to be elated or euphoric the way adult are with bipolar disorder .
When depressed, there may be many physical complaints such as headaches, muscle aches, stomachaches or tiredness. There might also be frequent school problems including absences from school or poor performance in school. Other symptoms include talk of or actual running away from home, irritability, complaining, unexplained crying, social isolation, poor communication, and extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure.
Other manifestations of both manic and depressive states may include alcohol or substance abuse and/or difficulty with relationships.
It’s believed that bipolar disorders that begin in childhood or early adolescence may be a different, possibly more severe form of the illness than when it begins in later adolescence or adulthood. When the illness begins before or soon after puberty, it is often characterized by a continuous, rapid-cycling, irritable, and mixed symptom state that may co-occur with disruptive behavior disorders, particularly attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or conduct disorder (CD), or may have features of these disorders as initial symptoms.
In contrast, later adolescent or adult-onset bipolar disorder tends to begin suddenly, often with a classic manic episode, and to have a more episodic pattern with relatively stable periods between episodes. There is also less co-occurring ADHD or CD among those with later onset illness.
The findings are beginning to show that the illness may be at least as common among youth as among adults. And with the distinctive difference between the childhood form and the adult form of bipolar disorder there is much need for further research and study to determine what exactly needs to be done to help these children and teenagers affected by this destructive mental illness that affects as many as one percent of adolescents ages 14 to 18.
If you suspect that your child or teen could be affected by bipolar disorder seek professional help for diagnosis and treatment immediately before the destructive behaviors gets out of control and creates even more serious problems for your child and your family. There is help and treatment available.