Bipolar disorder, once known as manic-depression, is a psychiatric diagnosis referring to a mental health condition defined by
periods of extreme, often inappropriate, and sometimes unpredictable mood states. Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness
that affects the child’s or adolescent’s behavior. Young people with bipolar disorder have moods with extreme ups and
downs. Bipolar disorder is also associated with a variety of cognitive deficits, in particular, difficulty in organizing and
planning. The disorder may also confuse the ability to determine other people’s mind-set, and alters sense of awareness.
In the past, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder was rarely made for children. Based on more recent research, bipolar disorder in
children is now better recognized and can be treated. Currently, it is unknown exactly how common bipolar disorder is in
children and adolescents. Estimates are that over one million children and adolescents have bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is
a serious illness that can interfere with a child’s functioning in the family, at school and with friends.
Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder
Persons with bipolar disorder have dramatic changes in their moods, alternating between feeling very depressed and feeling
high or manic. Sometimes they have bouts of mania and may have lots of energy or feel irritated. At other times their mood
swings to depression, and they feel sad. They may have more normal moods between these episodes. The periods of
depression or mania can last for days, weeks or even months. Experts used to think only adults developed bipolar disorder.
They now believe even a young child can develop bipolar disorder, although with different symptoms than adults.
In children younger than age 9, bipolar disorder frequently appears as depression or irritability. During a depressive episode, a
young child may become withdrawn, have a short attention span, feel guilty for no reason, and have low energy that can last
for hours, days, or weeks. Your child may throw temper tantrums, become easily frustrated, and become explosively angry.
Irritability and temper tantrums can also be part of manic episodes.
In children, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a depressive and a manic episode, especially if cycles are rapid or
symptoms of depression and mania occur together. Irritability may progress into severe, seizure-like temper tantrums when
the child is told "no." A bipolar child 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 violent.
Symptoms of depression include:
• Intense feelings of sadness, despair and worthlessness
• Lack of interest in playing with friends
• An increase or decrease in sleeping and/or eating
• Feeling tired all the time
• Thoughts of death and/or suicide
• Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
• Crying spells
• Irritability and/or fighting
• Physical complaints, like muscle aches and headaches or stomachaches
• Failing grades in school
• Difficulty concentrating
• In young children, having great difficulty separating from parents
Symptoms of mania include:
• Defiance and rage
• Severe changes in mood, either extremely irritable or overly silly
• Increased energy
• Decreased need for sleep, ability to go with very little or no sleep for days without tiring
• Increased talking, talks too much, too fast; changes topics too quickly; cannot be interrupted
• Distractibility, attention moves constantly from one thing to the next
• Physical agitation
• Disregard of risk, excessive involvement in risky behaviors or activities
Causes of Bipolar Disorder
The cause of bipolar disorder is not well understood. It’s hereditary and is believed to be associated to an imbalance of brain
chemicals (neurotransmitters) which help regulate mood. The chances of a child or adolescent having Bipolar are much
greater if their parents and/or grandparents have it. The start of bipolar disorder can be triggered by extreme stress, such as
the death of a loved one, substance abuse or an illness. Bipolar disorder may also occur without any apparent cause.
Symptoms of bipolar disorder in children are often confused with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); the two
conditions can coincide. Bipolar disorder frequently occurs within families, although genetic factors account for only about
60% of cases. Family members of patients with bipolar disorder also have a higher than average incidence of other psychiatric
problems. They include schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and major
Treatment for Bipolar Disorder:
There are many treatments that can reduce the depression and mania and allow the child or adolescent to enjoy their family
and friends, to learn, and to prepare to have productive adult lives. Treatments include play therapy for children, and one on
one therapy like counseling for older children and adolescents, and medications. Counseling with parents helps them to
understand their child’s difficulties and manage the symptoms. Although mood changes and other symptoms associated with
bipolar disorder are challenging, they can be managed effectively. Treatment usually includes medications (such as mood
stabilizers) and professional counseling, and often a combination of both is most effective.
Bipolar illness is a serious disorder that has a big impact on both the child and his or her family. Successful treatment requires
that the child and family members understand what happens in bipolar disorder and that the family members help make sure
that the child follows the treatment. You and your child's doctor can discuss which treatment is right for your child. Older
children and teenagers may want to participate in their own treatment decisions.
In determining appropriate medication the child should be evaluated and treated based on the severity of his or her symptoms.
Many medications can make the symptoms of bipolar disorder worse, and if your child is taking one of these, he or she may
need to taper off and stop the medication. This should only be done under the supervision of a doctor.
While medications to treat bipolar disorder have been well studied for use in adults, there are few long-term studies that
confirm the effectiveness and safety of mood stabilizers in children and adolescents with bipolar disorder. Be sure to use all
medications exactly as your child's doctor has prescribed them. If your child develops intolerable side effects from any
medication, call your health professional immediately.
Medications most often used include:
• Mood stabilizers - such as lithium carbonate
• Anti-psychotics - which your doctor may combine with a mood stabilizer for more effective control of manic episodes.
• Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) - types of antidepressants to control episodes of depression. While
antidepressants can be helpful for some children, they might also trigger mania. A doctor will usually prescribe antidepressants
with other medications that help regulate mood, and he or she must carefully monitor the child.
Professional counseling works best when symptoms of bipolar disorder are controlled with medications. Several
types of therapy may be helpful, depending on the age of the child. These include:
• Cognitive-behavioral therapy - which focuses on modifying certain thinking and behavior patterns.
• Social-interaction therapy - which focuses on social and personal relationships and related problems.
• Problem-solving therapy - a brief type of cognitive therapy that helps you find immediate solutions to problems.
• Family therapy - which can help educate and comfort the entire family.
• Play therapy for very young children.
There are steps you can take at home to reduce your child's symptoms of bipolar disorder:
• Keep your child's room quiet, and have your child go to bed at the same time every night.
• Control the amount of stress in your child's life. You may need to seek ways to help your child reduce academic
requirements during severe mood swings.
• Learn to recognize the early warning signs of your child's manic and depressive mood episodes.
Steps your child can take to help control moods include:
• Getting enough exercise. During a depressive episode, your child may feel like doing only gentle exercises, such as taking a
walk or swimming.
• Getting enough sleep and keeping a consistent sleep schedule.
• Eating a balanced diet.
• Avoiding the use of alcohol or drugs. Substance abuse makes bipolar disorder worse.
• Avoiding beverages that contain caffeine, including coffee, tea, colas, and energy drinks.
• Asking for help from friends and family when needed.
Prognosis for Bipolar Disorder:
The problem with bipolar disorder is that children and adolescents often go years before they get the treatment they need. A
child or adolescent who appears to be depressed or shows signs of manic or hyperactive behavior, excessive temper
outbursts and mood changes should be evaluated by a psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker who has experience treating
Most children who have bipolar disorder need medication. However, other forms of treatment used along with medications
play an important role in balancing mood and improving quality of life. Counseling, education about the disorder, and stress
reduction can help children with bipolar disorder.
A good prognosis results from good treatment which, in turn, results from an accurate diagnosis. Because bipolar disorder
continues to have a high rate of both under diagnosis and mis-diagnosis, it is often difficult for individuals with the illness to
receive timely and competent treatment.
Bipolar disorder is a severely disabling medical condition. However, with appropriate treatment, many individuals with bipolar
disorder can live full and satisfying lives. Persons with bipolar disorder are likely to have periods of normal or near normal
functioning between episodes.
|Bipolar Disorder in Children
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