It’s typical, even normal, for children and teens to experience mood changes. However, if your child is prone to intense mood swings, persistent episodes of mania or depression, or you’ve recently seen a drastic change in character, bipolar disorder could be the cause. 

Keep reading to learn more about young children and teens with bipolar disorder. We’re discussing the warning signs of this serious but treatable mental health condition. We’ll look at what causes it, how it’s diagnosed, and how mental health professionals provide treatment.

Signs of Bipolar Disorder in Children & Teens

Many people with bipolar disorder start experiencing bipolar symptoms before the age of 18. So, despite it being a mental health condition that’s typically associated with adults, the truth is bipolar disorder can start at any age.

You might think that you have a good grasp of what bipolar disorder looks like. However, childhood bipolar disorder can be a bit trickier to recognize. This is due to the fact that teens are notoriously moody and often exhibit wild emotions. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), when childhood bipolar disorder begins, teens might often talk about or have thoughts about suicide or self-harm. Knowing the signs of bipolar disorder is important, as early intervention can be a predictor of how well you’re able to manage and treat this disorder which affects an estimated 2.9% of adolescents. 

So, what are the signs of bipolar disorder in teens and children? There are many possibilities, and bipolar symptoms can vary depending on whether someone is having a manic episode or a depressive episode. Following are some signs to note.

Manic signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder in teens and children: 

  • Being reckless 
  • Showing poor decision-making skills
  • Feeling intensely happy
  • Being extremely silly for long periods of time
  • Talking very fast
  • Being easily distracted
  • Having racing thoughts
  • Experiencing a heightened sex drive
  • Having a short fuse or temper
  • Becoming very agitated or irritable
  • Showing an over-inflated sense of self-esteem

Depressive signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder in teens and children: 

  • Sleeping more than normal
  • Having thoughts of or talking about suicide
  • Having feelings of extreme sadness
  • Eating too much
  • Eating too little 
  • Having a sudden loss of interest in things once enjoyed
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Isolating from others
  • Feeling lonely
  • Having no energy

It can be easy to think, at first, that these signs of bipolar disorder in teens are just typical teenage melancholy. This is why education, close observation, and regular communication with the young people in your life can ensure you’re much more likely to understand when symptoms might be something more, perhaps warranting a psychological evaluation.

“Bipolar disorder signs and symptoms for children and teens are not so dissimilar than adults struggling with bipolar disorder. The struggle is recognizing when they’re more extreme than normal adolescent hormones. They can also show similar signs and symptoms of other disorders more common in adolescence, like ADHD or anxiety/depression.”

Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC

What Causes Bipolar Disorder in Children & Teens

As with adults, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) explains that we just aren’t clear about exactly what causes bipolar disorder in children and teens. 

That said, researchers have begun to discover and explore genetic mechanisms that are thought to contribute to bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions such as anxiety disorder. When it comes to is bipolar disorder genetic, having a close family member with bipolar disorder increases the chance of a teen or child also developing the condition, suggesting there is likely a hereditary component.  

There are various additional factors thought to increase risk, too. Though more research is still needed, it’s believed that some of these factors might include: 

  • Differences in the brain structure and function 
  • Traumatic events during childhood
  • Parental divorce
  • Sexual or physical abuse
  • Parental imprisonment
  • Neglect
  • Parental drug use or abuse

For children and teens who are already at risk of developing bipolar disorder, common environmental stressors may increase their risk.

As noted, it’s been identified and is being researched more heavily, the potential that brain structure anomalies might contribute to the risk of developing bipolar depression. Again, having one or more family members with bipolar disorder may indicate a genetic predisposition.

“Research is unclear as to what causes bipolar disorder. It’s been shown that an individual’s chance of being diagnosed with bipolar disorder is higher if there’s a close family history with the diagnosis. Others suggest acute trauma and hardship can contribute to the development of bipolar disorder. Therapy and medication can help treat the symptoms.”

Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC

Diagnosing Bipolar Disorder in Children & Teens

Bipolar disorder teens and young children experience can be difficult to diagnose accurately. There isn’t a simple blood or lab test that can tell a doctor or psychiatrist what’s happening.

So how is bipolar disorder diagnosed? If you notice your child exhibiting symptoms of bipolar disorder and you’re concerned, call your family physician and ask for help. A doctor will likely refer your son or daughter to a mental health provider for a complete psychological evaluation.

Diagnosis of any mental health condition will generally begin with an interview designed to develop a full picture of the situation, symptoms, and risk factors.

It’s important, but can be complicated, to separate any common overlapping symptoms between bipolar disorder and some other mental health conditions, like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), chronic depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Because it can have similar symptoms to several other mental health conditions, like depressive disorder or anxiety disorder, it can be challenging to spot in children and teens. For a bipolar diagnosis to be made, a child must exhibit both depressive and manic symptoms to a varying degree. Only an experienced licensed mental health care professional can diagnose a child or teen with pediatric bipolar disorder. 

Treatment for Bipolar Disorder in Children & Teens

If you were wondering does bipolar get worse with age, without effective treatment, the signs of bipolar disorder in children and teenagers can evolve and worsen as they get older. Beginning treatment as early as possible is crucial for long-term symptom management success.

When it comes to how to treat bipolar disorder it typically involves a combination of methods. Most often, this includes using both prescription medications as well as psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy). Additionally, there are bipolar disorder natural treatments such as self-care activities that can be beneficial. Let’s take a closer look at the various modalities used in treating bipolar disorder.

Medication

Mood stabilizer medications can be prescribed along with Dialectical behavior therapy which has been shown to be an affective treatment for bi-polar disorder. Lithium is one of the most common drugs that can be safely prescribed to treat bipolar disorder in teens. Other medications to treat symptoms of bipolar disorder might include anticonvulsants, antidepressants, atypical antipsychotics (known as second-generation antipsychotics), and more. 

Pay attention to a behavior or mood change that your child shows after beginning any medication. You also want to diligently be on the lookout for the development of possible adverse side effects. Keeping a journal can be very helpful for this. 

Prescription medications prescribed for symptoms of pediatric bipolar disorder can often work well for a time, but then plateau in effect with continued usage. Be sure to keep in communication with your child’s doctor or therapist if you notice a change in the effects a medication is having. In many cases, people with bipolar disorder must periodically change the types or dosage of medications they’re taking. Sometimes, beginning a new medication might work better.

All medications have the possibility of adverse side effects. Although bipolar medications are widely used and have the potential to provide relief for many people, it’s important to remember that they can occasionally contribute to reduced overall health.

This is why it’s so important to enhance the effects of pharmaceuticals with therapy. Together, talk therapy and meds can offer the most benefits for reducing symptoms and managing bipolar episodes in teens.

Therapy

There are various types of therapy for bipolar disorder in children and teenagers. A therapist can help your child learn about their mental health condition. Together, they can focus on techniques and strategies for effectively coping with and managing symptoms.

Family therapy and group psychoeducation are often recommended to maximize the treatment benefits. A therapist will teach all family members how to cope with bipolar disorder and the effects it can have on the family unit. Treatment is best-optimized when the child, therapists, doctors, teachers, parents, and other family members all work together as a team.

Natural remedies

Noticing the signs of bipolar disorder in children is never easy. It can hurt to see a young person suffering from a serious mental health condition. However, there’s hope.

It’s true that medications can produce amazing results, often without causing adverse side effects. Different types of therapy — including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) — are known to be effective in improving long-term symptom management. That said, it’s essential to understand that bipolar disorder does not go away or self-resolve. There’s no cure for bipolar disorder — it’s episodic and a lifelong affliction. 

Developing every coping strategy possible, including natural tactics to support therapy and medication, can offer the best results for your child. The more time spent practicing these self-healing tactics, the better the chance your child’s quality of life will improve.

Consider these natural ways to enhance the effectiveness of medications and therapy:

  • Practice deep breathing exercises
  • Get educated about the nuances of bipolar disorder
  • Exercise regularly, to the point of mild perspiration
  • Practice mindfulness meditation to stay aware of thoughts and feelings as they develop
  • Base a diet on nutritious foods like green leafy vegetables, lean meats, and plenteous water

Bipolar disorder in teens and children face can be challenging to live with and understand. Many parents become very frustrated when trying to meet the needs of children who live with this complicated mood affliction. Finding a qualified psychologist or therapist who can offer support can bring great relief to both parents and children as you learn to navigate a bipolar disorder diagnosis together.

Talkspace is an online therapy platform that’s changing the approach to getting mental health help. Our experienced licensed therapists can give you, your child, and your entire family the guidance you need. Facing bipolar disorder in children and teens doesn’t have to be the end…with help, you can all learn to live a successful, happy life.