While it’s uncommon for a child to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it remains possible. Children that show more emotional disruption and disorderly behaviors may become a concern to parents. With that, you may be curious about bipolar signs in children.
Since it’s rare for children to develop bipolar disorder, signs of the condition in children are fairly vague. Not to mention, they can apply to a number of other mental illnesses as well.
Throughout this article, we’re going to unravel the signs of bipolar disorder seen in children. At the end, we invite you to ask any further questions you may have.
What is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder is a condition that causes severe mood swings involving emotional highs (mania or hypomania) and lows (depression). Being as these are contradicting emotions, a person with bipolar can go from feeling euphoric and full of energy to hopeless and losing interest in previously enjoyed activites. ¹
Currently, mental health professionals recognize three types of bipolar disorder:
- Bipolar I Disorder – defined by manic episodes that last for at least 7 days and may become so severe, they require hospitalization. Episodes of depression will last as least 2 weeks and can overlap with episodes of mania.
- Bipolar II Disorder – defined by hypomanic and depressive episodes. Hypomanic episodes are not as severe as the manic episodes found in bipolar I.
- Cyclothymic Disorder (Cyclothymia) – when hypomanic and depressive episodes last for at least 2 years. ²
Typically, bipolar disorder is diagnosed in late adolescence (teen years) or early adulthood. However, symptoms can appear in children and older adults. ³ Not to mention, some women may notice symptoms upon pregnancy or following childbirth.
Symptoms of bipolar disorder are divided into three categories. These are as follows:
Symptoms of mania include:
- Feeling very “up,” “high,” “jumpy,” irritable, or touchy
- Loss of apetite
- Notions that you’re unusually important, talented, or powerful
- Participating in risky behavior (i.e. drugs or alcohol, gambling, reckless sex)
- Racing thoughts
- Reduced need for sleep
- Talking very fast
- Thinking you can do a lot at once
Symptoms of hypomania are the same as manic episodes. However, they aren’t as intense as those of manic symptoms.
Symptoms of depression include:
- Difficulty sleeping (i.e. waking up too late, sleeping too much)
- Feelings of sadness, emptiness, and hopelessness
- Inability to do simple tasks
- Increased appetite (weight gain)
- Loss of interest in things you once enjoyed
- Talking very slow
- Trouble with concentration and decision-making
- Suicidal ideation
8 Bipolar Signs in Children
Since bipolar is rare in children, finding the right signs and symptoms can be difficult. However, there are a few things you should keep an eye out for if you believe your child is struggling with bipolar disorder:
1.) Manic Episodes
Just like adults with bipolar disorder, children will experience manic episodes that are defined by emotional highs. However, a child may also present their symptoms a bit differently:
- Increased energy and lack of need for sleep (going days without feeling tired)
- Rapid thoughts and conversations (talks about multiple things at once)
- Repeated risky behavior (seen more in teenagers – drug use, sexual promiscuity, etc.)
- Unrealistic self-esteem (i.e. having superhero powers)
Since children tend to be much more active than adults, their overabundance of energy may initially be overlooked. Furthermore, it may also be mistaken for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
2.) Depressive Episodes
Signs of a depressive episode may be less obvious than those of manic episodes. Typically, a child with bipolar disorder can experience: ⁴
- Decreased appetite (changes in eating habits)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed
- Low energy
A child may reveal their depression by talking about physical illnesses, such as stomach aches and headaches. These discussions shouldn’t be overlooked as children can also experience thoughts of suicide. ⁵
3.) Family Genetics
If a child is struggling with bipolar disorder, it’s likely someone else in the family also struggles with the condition. For this reason, a family medical history should be taken into consideration when diagnosing bipolar disorder as your child may be struggling with another condition. ⁶
Still, it’s important to note that a family history of bipolar disorder is not absolute when it comes to diagnosis. Furthermore, the risk of bipolar increases when genetics are closer to the child (i.e. a parent or sibling rather than an aunt or cousin).
4.) Grandiose Behavior
While it’s not the most common symptom of bipolar in children, grandiose behavior is a key sign your child is struggling with this condition. Especially in the initial phases of diagnosis.
There are a few aspects of this behavior a parent can keep an eye out for: ⁷
- Acting as though they are superior to others
- Giddiness and goofieness at innapropriate times (i.e. bedtime)
- Overwhelming happiness (especially over things that aren’t important)
Since grandiose behavior is less common, it shouldn’t alone rule out bipolar disorder.
5.) Rage and Anger
In children with bipolar disorder, anger is one of the most common symptoms. While all children get angry from time to time, those with bipolar tend to show very intense levels of anger. ⁸
These levels can become violent and may put the child or others at risk. For example, a child might reveal their anger by attacking someone else or destroying their toys.
Unfortunately, children with bipolar anger are usually unable to control their emotions. With that, anger can become more and more severe – lasting for hours at a time. Furthermore, a parent’s response to the anger may only exaggerate it.
6.) Mood Swings
As discussed, mood swings going from highs to lows are the common trait of bipolar disorder. However, in children, these mood swings tend to be more rapid – sometimes happening multiple times within a single day. ⁹
Parents tend to see a pattern when it comes to these fluctuations in their child’s mood, energy, and overall routine. If you’ve noticed a pattern in your child, it’s important to address it as it can lead to difficulties in other aspects of life, from relationships to school.
7.) Changes in Behavior at School
In both teenagers and children, you may notice a change in behavior reflected in their school life. This can include:
- Drop in grades
- Engaging in risky sexual behavior
- Quitting a sports team or other extracurricular activities
- Talking about death (usually with classmates)
- Using drugs or alcohol
If you or the school administration has noticed any changes in behavior, it’s important to talk with both your child and their teacher or guidance counselor. These discussions can help you set up the right treatment path for your child’s recovery.
8.) Development of Similar Conditions
As previously discussed, your child may show signs of bipolar disorder, but is actually struggling with another mental illness. Both manic and depressive symptoms can overlap other conditions and for this reason, it’s important to see a mental health professional before coming to any conclusions. ¹⁰
Mental health professionals will look for “bipolar markers” to determine whether or not your child struggles with bipolar disorder. For example, a psychiatrist may observe your teenager engages in risky sexual behavior which is unique to bipolar disorder. ¹¹
Furthermore, it’s important to rule out other health conditions. Since bipolar disorder is rare in children, you should check with your child’s doctor to confirm they aren’t suffering from a physical condition.
Bipolar disorder can be a detrimental condition. However, with the right tools and professional help, it is something your child can overcome.
It’s important to note that our outline of bipolar signs in children isn’t a determining factor of the disorder. Instead, it’s vital you have your child inspected by a mental health professional. A proper assessment along with testing will allow you to determine whether your child is struggling with bipolar disorder or another condition.
If your child is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, there are a number of resources for parents to give their children the best shot at beating this condition. Furthermore, it’s important your child consistently follows a psychiatrist’s advice.
Still have questions concerning bipolar signs in children?
We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have any further knowledge to share – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.
¹ National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): Bipolar Disorder
² MedlinePlus: Cyclothymic disorder
³ National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens
⁴ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Anxiety and Depression in Children
⁵ HHS Public Access: Thoughts of Death and Suicide in Early Adolescence
⁶ The Application of Clinical Genetics (Dovepress): Genetics of bipolar disorder
⁷ Paediatrics Child Health: Child and adolescent bipolar disorder
⁸ University of Michigan: Bipolar & Anger: Unravel Your Wrath
⁹ Iranian Journal of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences (IJPBS): Early Onset Bipolar Disorder in a 5.5 Years-Old Child
¹⁰ Psychiatry (MMC): Misdiagnosis of Bipolar Disorder
¹¹ HHS Public Access: Sexual Risk Behavior Among Youth With Bipolar Disorder