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Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens

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KEY POINTS

  • Bipolar disorder causes episodes of extreme changes in mood, energy, thinking, and behavior, such as feeling highly energized and very active, and then feeling sad, hopeless, and low energy.
  • Treatment may include medicines and several kinds of therapy. In severe cases, your child may need to be treated in the hospital.
  • Get emergency care if your child has serious thoughts of suicide or harming others. Also, get emergency help if manic behavior becomes so severe that it endangers your child or others.

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What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a condition that causes episodes of extreme changes in mood, energy, thinking, and behavior. There are usually two mood phases, a manic phase and a depressed phase. In the manic phase your child has an unusually high amount of energy and is extremely active. In the depressed phase your child is very sad, hopeless, and doesn’t care about anything

Episodes of bipolar disorder may continue over a lifetime. Episodes tend to get worse and more frequent if not treated. Bipolar disorder can be managed even if it is not cured.

What is the cause?

The exact cause of the disorder is not known.

  • The brain makes chemicals that affect thoughts, emotions, and actions. Without the right balance of these chemicals, there may be problems with the way your child thinks, feels, or acts. Children with this disorder may have too little or too much of some of these chemicals.
  • Bipolar disorder tends to run in families. Stress also plays a part.
  • Children with this disorder may have physical changes in their brain. These changes may mean that some parts of the brain are more active or less active than in other children.
  • Some medicines can cause depression or manic symptoms. These include some antidepressants, stimulants, blood pressure medicines, diet pills, and steroids such as prednisone.
  • Alcohol and drug abuse can trigger symptoms.

Bipolar disorder is not very common in children. It is usually not diagnosed until the late teenage years.

What are the symptoms?

BPD is different in children and teens than in adults. In adults, there are often clear episodes of mania or depression that last a week or longer. In children and teens, the phases may be less clear and changes from one mood to the other may happen faster. Children may have more than one depressed or manic mood in a single day.

In the manic phase, symptoms may include:

  • Having bursts of energy and being extremely active
  • Throwing tantrums often or seeming more irritable
  • Being unusually silly compared to others of the same age
  • Being defiant and destructive, and not following rules
  • Being more interested in sex or having unsafe sex
  • Going for days with little or no sleep without feeling tired
  • Being impatient and unable to wait for things to happen
  • Talking very fast, not allowing others to talk, and changing topics very quickly
  • Being distracted, having trouble concentrating, and jumping between different ideas
  • Acting recklessly, such as running into traffic, wild bicycle or skateboard riding, stealing, or spending all of their money

In the depressed phase, symptoms may include:

  • Appearing not interested in things your child used to enjoy
  • Being irritable
  • Having trouble falling asleep, waking up very early, or sleeping too much
  • Having low energy and being bored or restless
  • Losing interest in friends or classmates
  • Having trouble concentrating or remembering things
  • Eating very little, being a very picky eater, or overeating
  • Saying negative things like "I'm stupid" or "I hate myself"
  • Talking about death and suicide such as saying "I wish I was dead"

Teens may be less likely than adults to admit that they are sad and depressed.

Your child may also have mania with depressed symptoms at the same time. Your child may be overly active, have racing thoughts, withdraw from others, feel worthless or very irritable, and cry often.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider or therapist will ask about your child’s symptoms. The provider will make sure your child does not have a medical illness or drug or alcohol problem that could cause the symptoms. Many symptoms are also symptoms of other disorders. A mental health therapist who specializes in working with children and teens is best qualified to diagnose bipolar disorder because children and teens may also have other disorders in addition to bipolar disorder, such as:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Substance abuse

How is it treated?

Bipolar disorder can be successfully treated with therapy, medicines, or both. If bipolar disorder is not treated, the manic and depression episodes can be more severe and may happen more often. Most of the time, your child will feel better after a few weeks of treatment.

Medicines

Several types of medicines can help treat bipolar disorder. Your healthcare provider will work with you to select the best medicine. If your child also has ADHD, medicines for ADHD may be prescribed. However, in some cases the medicines for ADHD can trigger manic symptoms or mood swings in children with bipolar disorder. Medicines to treat depression can also bring on bipolar symptoms in children.

Therapy

Combining medicines with therapy is often the best approach. Several kinds of therapy may help:

  • Psychoeducational Therapy. This type of therapy involves the therapist teaching instead of the client talking. Your child may learn about mental health problems, treatment options, and how to cope with symptoms. Therapists may provide your child with useful information or may help your child learn different skills. They work with individuals and groups.
  • Chronotherapy. This therapy helps your child establish a steady sleep routine. Your child learns to go to bed at the same time and rise at the same time every day.
  • Interpersonal social rhythm therapy. This therapy help your child keep regular daily routines such as waking up and going to sleep at the same time, eating at the same time, and doing other daily activities at regular times. Your child learns that regular routines help even out moods, even when facing stressful life events such as the loss of a loved one, moving, or troubled relationships.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy. This type of therapy helps your child be aware of his or her thoughts and behavior, learn how to express needs, deal with stressful situations, and manage emotions.
  • Family focused therapy. All family members learn about bipolar disorder, treatment, and ways that family members can best support your child. Family members learn communication and problem-solving skills to reduce conflict and help resolve family problems.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a way to help your child identify and change views of self, the world, and the future. CBT can make your child aware of unhealthy ways of thinking. It can also help your child learn new ways to think and act.

Other treatments

Learning ways to relax may help. Yoga and meditation may also be helpful. You may want to talk with your healthcare provider about using these methods along with medicines and therapy.

Claims have been made that certain herbal and dietary products help control depression symptoms. Omega-3 fatty acids may help to reduce symptoms of depression. No known herbal or natural remedies are effective in treating bipolar disorder. Supplements are not tested or standardized and may vary in strengths and effects. They may have side effects and are not always safe.

How can I take care of my child?

  • Support your child. Encourage children to talk about whatever they want to talk about. Be a good listener. This helps children begin to realize that their feelings and thoughts really do matter, that you truly care about them, and that you never stopped caring. If your child shuts you out, don't walk away. Let children know that you are there for them whenever they need you. Remind children of this over and over again. They may need to hear it a lot because they feel unworthy of love and attention.

    Stay in touch with teachers, babysitters, and other people who care for your child to share information about symptoms your child may be having.

  • Be consistent. Be firm and consistent with rules and consequences. Your child needs to know that the rules still apply to them. It does not help to teach children that they can avoid consequences if they’re depressed or if they act out.
  • Help your child learn to manage stress. Teach children and teens to practice deep breathing or other relaxation techniques when feeling stressed. Help your child find ways to relax, for example take up a hobby, listen to music, watch movies, or take walks.
  • Take care of your child’s physical health. Make sure your child eats a variety of healthy foods and gets enough sleep and physical activity every day. Teach children and teens to avoid alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and drugs.
  • Check your child’s medicines. Tell all healthcare providers who treat your child about all the medicines your child takes. Make sure your child takes prescribed medicines every day, even if feeling well. Stopping medicines when your child feels well may start the problems again.
  • Keep a symptom diary to track your child’s moods. Share what you learn with your child’s healthcare provider or counselor.
  • Contact your healthcare provider or therapist if you have any questions or if your child’s symptoms seem to be getting worse.

Get emergency care if your child has thoughts of suicide or harming others, or if manic behavior puts you, others, or your child in danger.

For more information, contact:

Developed by Change Healthcare.
Pediatric Advisor 2019.4 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2019-10-25
Last reviewed: 2017-08-29
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2018 Change Healthcare LLC and/or one of its subsidiaries
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