Learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder and get help for your child, teen, or young adult.
Learn about bipolar disorder
Bipolar disorder is a severe mental illness that rapidly overtakes a child or adolescent’s life. Characterized by dramatic fluctuations in mood that cause those afflicted by it to experience extreme emotional highs and extreme emotional lows, bipolar disorder has the potential to leave sufferers feelings as though they have lost any semblance of control over their own minds. The presence of these consistently oscillating moods can negatively impact not on the individual’s life who is struggling with this illness, but it can have a devastating impact on the lives of those around him or her as well. Especially for children and adolescents who are plagued by this disorder, their families may feel the negative consequences of their moods and behaviors almost as blatantly as the children and adolescents themselves. Parents of children with bipolar disorder may feel as though they are constantly walking on eggshells, unsure as to how their child is going to react in any given moment. It can be scary, confusing, and completely overwhelming.
For the children themselves, the presence of symptoms synonymous with bipolar disorder can elicit monumental strife in all aspects of their lives. These children may find it difficult to control their behaviors both at home and at school, resulting in constant discipline that ultimately begins to deteriorate their sense of self-worth. Even when they want to control their behaviors, they find that they are simply unable to. This sense of powerlessness over oneself can lead to the onset of engaging in many risky behaviors, such as beginning to self-harm or use drugs and/or alcohol.
Historically, individuals under the age of 18 were not given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder due to the fact that the ways in which symptoms are displayed in younger people tend to not be as obvious as they are when displayed by adults. However, with continuing research and advancements in treatment, professionals in the field are now able to classify certain symptoms that are unique to this disorder in children and adolescents and have subsequently been able to devise thorough, appropriate treatment plans that can help children overcome the distress they face as the result of bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder statistics
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), bipolar disorder is believed to have an estimated lifetime prevalence of 0-3% in children and adolescents. A true prevalence cannot be determined, however, due to the fact that the boundaries of the diagnosis are still under debate amongst mental health professionals.
Causes and risk factors for bipolar disorder
There is not any one factor that directly results in the development of bipolar disorder. Rather, it is believed to be a combination of genetic, physiological, and environment factors working together that ultimately result in its onset. These factors are described in more detail in the following:
Genetic: Bipolar disorder is believed to have a strong genetic component due to the fact that it is known to run in families. Estimates have been offered that state that when children have one parent who afflicted by this illness, they have a 15-25% change of experiencing its onset as well. Also worth noting is the fact that, for these children who have biological parents with bipolar disorder, they typically begin to experience symptoms of the illness approximately ten years earlier than their parents did.
Physical: The presence of chemical imbalances in the brain are believed to be a large component behind why many individuals develop symptoms of bipolar disorder. More specifically, when there exists dysfunction within neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals responsible for sending messages throughout the brain, there is believed to be an increased likelihood that someone will experience the onset of bipolar disorder.
Environmental: Despite being the source of ongoing debate amongst professionals in the field, there are some mental health experts who believe that certain environmental factors can elicit the development of bipolar disorder, even without the presence of genetic or physical influences. For example, some researchers believe that experiencing trauma, being the victim of neglect or abuse, or growing up in a chaotic environment can result in the onset of bipolar disorder. More commonly agreed upon, however, is that certain environmental influences that lead to chemical changes in the brain, such as the use of drugs and/or alcohol, can result in the development of bipolar disorder.
- Having a blood relative who suffers from bipolar disorder
- Family history of other mental health conditions
- Personal history of substance abuse
- Experiencing severe trauma / abuse / neglect
Signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder
The signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder will present differently amongst various children and adolescents. The symptoms that are displayed will also vary greatly depending on what emotional state children are experiencing, in other words, whether they are in a depressed state, a manic state, or a mixed state. Examples of different signs and symptoms that may be exhibited by children and adolescents with bipolar disorder may include:
- Acting out impulsively, unable to control impulses, despite the occurrence of negative consequences that result from impulsive behaviors
- Acting out recklessly
- Extreme restlessness / constant fidgeting
- Engaging in manipulative behaviors
- Explosive and/or violent temper tantrums, often occurring without provocation
- Engaging in self-harming behaviors
- Acting out in oppositional and defiant behaviors
- Motor tics
- Vocal tics
- Teeth grinding
- Drastic fluctuations in body temperature
- Insomnia or hypersomnia
- Exaggerated startle response
- High arousal states
- Racing thoughts
- Poor working memory
- Concentration difficulties / easily distracted
- Chronic night terrors
- Feelings of elation
- Feelings of grandiosity
- Low self-esteem or inflated self-esteem
- Becoming easily humiliated
- Excessive irritability and agitation
- Prolonged periods of emotional excitability
- Extreme anxiety
- Oscillating moods
- Suicidal ideation
Effects of bipolar disorder
When left untreated, the long-term effects of bipolar disorder can cause a great amount of devastation on a child or adolescent’s life. Examples of such effects can include:
- Academic failure
- Behavioral problems at school, resulting in suspension or expulsion
- Disturbed social interactions, resulting in an inability to develop and maintain strong, healthy, lasting interpersonal relationships
- Chronic, ongoing self-injury, resulting in adverse effects to one’s physical health
- Substance use, abuse, and addiction
- Criminal involvement
- Suicidal thoughts and behaviors
Bipolar disorder and co-occurring disorders
Some children and adolescents who suffer from bipolar disorder will also display symptoms synonymous with other mental health conditions as well. However, it continues to be debated as to whether or not giving children and adolescents multiple diagnoses is clinically appropriate due to the fact that many of the symptoms characteristic of bipolar disorder will mirror or overlap symptoms of other disorders.
Despite this, examples of some disorders that are believed to co-occur with bipolar disorder in children and adolescents include:
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Social anxiety disorder
- Specific phobias
- Panic disorder
- Eating disorders
- Conduct disorder
- Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
- Substance use disorders