Home > Health Library > Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens
Bipolar disorder causes mood
swings with extreme ups (mania) and downs (depression). When people with this problem are up, they have brief, intense
outbursts or feel irritable or extremely happy (mania) several
times almost every day. They have a lot of energy and a high activity level.
When they are down, they feel
depressed and sad.
Experts don't fully
understand what causes bipolar disorder.
It seems to run in
families. Your child has a greater risk of having it if a close family member
such as a parent, grandparent, brother, or sister has it. Parents may wonder
what they did to cause their child to have bipolar disorder. But there is
nothing a parent can do to cause or prevent it.
In children and teens, moods quickly change from one extreme to another
without a clear reason. But for a child to have bipolar disorder, these mood changes must be different from the child's usual moods and must happen with other symptoms or changes in behavior. These distinct periods of time with changes in mood and behavior are called mood episodes. People with bipolar disorder have manic and depressive mood episodes.
Times of mania (ups) or depression (downs) may be less obvious in children
and teens than in adults.
This disorder can be hard to diagnose in children and teens. The symptoms
can look a lot like the symptoms of other problems, such as:
Bipolar disorder can often occur
along with these problems.
If your doctor thinks your child or
teen may have bipolar disorder, he or she may ask questions about your child's
feelings and behavior. Your doctor may also give you and your child written
tests to find out how severe the mania or depression is.
The doctor may do
other tests (such as a blood test) to rule out other health problems. He or she
may ask if your family has any history of mental illness or problems with drugs
or alcohol. Any of these problems can be linked to bipolar disorder.
Children with this disorder are more likely to have other problems. These
alcohol and drug abuse, trouble in school, running
away from home, fighting, and even suicide. Treating the disorder as early as
possible may keep your child from having these problems.
the warning signs of suicide, which change with age.
Warning signs of suicide in children and teens may
include thinking too much about death or suicide. Watch also for things that
can trigger a suicide attempt such as a recent breakup of a relationship or the
loss of a parent or close family member through death or divorce.
The mood changes that come
bipolar disorder can be a challenge. But with the
right treatment, they can be managed well. Treatment usually includes both
medicine (such as mood stabilizers) and
An important part of
treatment is making sure your child takes his or her medicine. Children and
teens with this disorder sometimes stop taking their medicines when they feel
better. But without medicine, their symptoms usually come back.
Medicines for bipolar disorder in adults have been well studied. But more
research is being done on how the medicines work and if they are safe
for children and teens.
Keeping a consistent sleep-wake schedule is an important first step in managing bipolar disorder. Set a regular sleep-wake schedule for your child, to make sure they go to bed and wake up the same time every day, even on weekends.
Accepting that your child has bipolar
disorder can be hard. The disorder can be a serious, lifelong problem. Your
child will need long-term treatment and will need to be watched carefully. By
working with your child's doctor, you can find a treatment that works for your
Learning about bipolar disorder in children and teens:
Living with child bipolar disorder:
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
The cause of
bipolar disorder is not well understood.
It seems to run in families. Your child is at greater risk
of having bipolar disorder if a close family member such as a parent,
grandparent, brother, or sister has it.
traumatic events may trigger episodes of
depression in a child who has bipolar disorder. While it
is normal for such events to cause mood changes, these reactions are much more
extreme for children with bipolar disorder.
Sometimes symptoms of
mania occur as a result of another medical condition, such as an overactive
thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism) or
multiple sclerosis. Symptoms can also develop as a
side effect of some medicines, such as
corticosteroids or antidepressants. Using drugs or
alcohol, consuming too much caffeine, or not getting enough sleep can also
Bipolar disorder causes cycles of
mania (or hypomania, a less severe form of mania) and
depression. The different
types of bipolar disorder are based on whether a person has more severe
symptoms of mania or depression.
In children and younger teens, bipolar disorder tends to be rapid-cycling or mixed cycling:
Following are some common symptoms of bipolar disorder
in children and teens.1
During severe episodes of mania, your child may suffer
from symptoms of
psychosis, such as having
delusions of grandeur (for example, telling people
that a rock band is coming to his or her birthday party).
occurs along with other conditions, such as
conduct disorder. And each condition needs
Untreated bipolar disorder
can lead to suicide. Warning signs of suicide in children and teens may
include preoccupation with death or suicide or a recent breakup of a
confuse bipolar disorder in children with
other conditions with similar symptoms, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
is some evidence of a link between ADHD and bipolar disorder, the conditions
have distinct features that you can usually
In young children, the symptoms of mania are more than just being a bother to adults and other children
now and then. For example, many children can be silly and giggly to a point that it bothers their parents
sometimes. This is not considered to be a sign of mania. But if a child is silly and giggly for several hours,
several times almost every day, and this is interrupting the family's usual routine, then it may be a symptom
Often the first signs of
bipolar disorder are severe moodiness, unhappiness, or
symptoms of depression. It is common for children with
bipolar disorder to be diagnosed first with only
depression and then later to be diagnosed with bipolar
first manic or hypomanic episode can be triggered by a stressful situation or by certain medicines. Or it may occur without an obvious cause.
Children with bipolar disorder may:
In addition to having manic symptoms, children may have severe, seizure-like
temper tantrums when they are told "no." A child with bipolar disorder may kick, bite,
hit, and make hateful comments, including threats and curses. During tantrums,
which may last for hours, a child may destroy property or become increasingly
Young children with bipolar disorder
may have more extreme happy or silly moods than most children have.
Manic behavior by a teen with bipolar disorder may result in such problems as:
During depressive episodes, a teen may do poorly in school and may stop taking part in activities he or she enjoyed in the past, such as a sports team.
Watch for warning signs of suicide, which can
include preoccupation with death or suicide or a recent breakup of a
Substance abuse is common. Your child's doctor may recommend an evaluation for both
substance abuse problems and bipolar disorder if your child appears to suffer
from either condition.
Sometimes treatment for other conditions can make your
child's bipolar disorder worse. For example:
Medicines that intensify bipolar symptoms may need to be stopped or changed to
a different dose or medicine. Sometimes an additional medicine (such as a mood
stabilizer) can solve the problem. But each child responds to medicines
differently. And it may take several tries before your doctor can identify an
effective medicine, dose, or combination of medicines for your child's
Your child's risk for
bipolar disorder or other mood disorders is higher if
Call 911, the national suicide hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255), or other emergency services right away if:
Call a doctor right away if:
Seek care soon if:
It is best to build a long-term relationship with
your child's care providers so that when a depressive or manic episode occurs,
the care providers can recognize the changes in the child's behavior and
provide quick treatment advice.
may wish to find a doctor who has special training in children's mental health
conditions or experience treating bipolar disorder in young people. Bipolar
disorder can be diagnosed and treated by a health professional such as
Your child may also benefit from professional
counseling to help deal with mood changes and the
effects bipolar disorder has on your child's life. A counselor with special
training in child mood disorders or experience treating child bipolar disorder
may be most helpful. Counseling for bipolar disorder can be provided by
Other health professionals who also may be trained in
If you are
a family member of a child with bipolar disorder, it is very important to get
the support and help you need. Living with or caring for someone who has
bipolar disorder can be very disruptive to your own life. Manic episodes can be
particularly difficult. It may help to seek your own counselor or
therapist to support you.
Also, some national support organizations
may have a local chapter in your area or provide information on the Internet.
Examples of such groups include the National Alliance on Mental Illness
(NAMI) and the Child and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
There is no lab test that can diagnose
bipolar disorder. Doctors make the diagnosis through a
Before prescribing medicine to treat bipolar disorder, your
doctor will ask questions about possible suicidal behavior.
Mood changes and other
symptoms of bipolar disorder are challenging, but they can be managed
effectively. Treatment usually includes medicines (such as mood stabilizers)
and counseling. Often a combination of both is needed.
An important part of treatment is making sure
your child takes his or her bipolar medicine. Often people who feel better after
taking their medicine for a while think they are cured and
no longer need treatment. But when a person stops taking medicine, symptoms
usually return. So it is important that your child follow the treatment
Counseling works best when symptoms of bipolar
disorder are controlled with medicines. For more information on the types of counseling used to treat bipolar disorder, see Other Treatment.
Home treatment includes helping your child get regular exercise, eat a balanced diet, and have a regular sleep schedule. For more information, see Home Treatment.
If your child's behavior is suicidal, aggressive, reckless, or
dangerous, or if he or she is out of touch with reality (psychotic) or
unable to function, the child may need to go into the hospital for a while. Also, many
medicines can make the symptoms of bipolar disorder worse. If your child is
taking one of these, he or she may need to taper off and stop the medicine.
This should only be done under the supervision of a doctor.
Bipolar disorder has a big impact on both the
child and his or her family. Successful treatment requires that the child and
family members know what happens in bipolar disorder and that the family
members help make sure that the child follows the treatment.
can take time for you and your child to accept that the child has a serious,
long-term condition that requires ongoing treatment and constant monitoring.
But keep in mind that by working with your child's doctor, you and your child
can find treatment that works.
Bipolar disorder can't be prevented. But there are ways to help manage or
prevent mood changes.
The first and most important preventive
measure is to make sure that your child takes his or her medicines as directed.
Bipolar disorder is a long-term condition and often requires lifelong
treatment with medicines.
Reducing stress, getting regular sleep
and exercise, and staying on a daily routine may help prevent mood swings and
can help with the symptoms of depression and mania.
Learning as much as you can about bipolar disorder may help you recognize mood changes in your child as they
begin to occur. Catching and treating these mood changes early may help reduce
the length of the manic or depressive episode and improve the quality of your
There are steps you can take at home to
reduce your child's symptoms.
Steps your child can take to help control moods
For some children with bipolar disorder, depression can
cause debilitating symptoms. For information about managing childhood
depression, see the topic
Depression in Children and Teens.
Medicines for bipolar disorder in adults have been well studied. But more
research is being done on how well the medicines work and if they are safe
for children and teens.
When you and your child's
doctor are deciding which types of medicines to use, think about:
Be sure to use all medicines exactly as your child's
doctor has prescribed them. If your child has intolerable side effects from any
medicine, call your doctor immediately.
Medicines most often used to treat bipolar disorder in
children and teens include:
antidepressants can be helpful for some children with bipolar disorder, they
can also trigger
mania. Doctors usually prescribe antidepressants along
with mood stabilizers or antipsychotics to help prevent a manic episode. And
the doctor needs to carefully monitor the child for mood changes. Antipsychotics can be used
alone, or they may be combined with mood stabilizers for more effective control
of manic episodes.
Medicines for bipolar disorder have side effects that need
to be managed. Some things you cannot change, such as increased urination
(common with lithium). But you can deal with some side effects like weight gain
(common with several medicines used to treat bipolar disorder) by increasing
exercise and reducing calorie intake.
You can work with your child and his or
her doctor to find ways of coping with side effects. If side effects from a
medicine are intolerable, the doctor may have to change the dose or the
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued an advisory on antidepressant medicines and the risk of suicide. Talk to your doctor about possible side effects and the warning signs of suicide.
Most children who have
bipolar disorder need medicine. But other forms of
treatment used along with medicine play an important role in balancing mood and
improving quality of life. Counseling, education about the disorder, and stress
reduction can help.
Counseling along with medicine has been
used effectively to manage bipolar disorder. Types of therapy that counselors
use to treat bipolar disorder include:
In some cases,
electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be an option. In
this procedure, brief electrical stimulation to the brain is given through
electrodes placed on the head. The stimulation produces a short seizure that is
thought to balance brain chemicals.
Complementary medicine is
a term used for a wide variety of health care practices that may be used along
with standard medical treatment. A few studies suggest that adding omega-3 fatty acids to medicine (such as lithium) can help reduce the depressive symptoms of bipolar disorder in some people. Omega-3 fatty acids don't seem to have an effect on the manic symptoms of bipolar disorder. And omega-3 fatty acids alone are not a good treatment for bipolar disorder. They are not a replacement for medicine or other therapy used to treat bipolar disorder.2, 3
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Montgomery P, Richardson AJ (2009). Omega-3 fatty acids for bipolar disorder. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1).
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April 10, 2013
John Pope, MD - Pediatrics & David A. Axelson, MD - Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
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