Bipolar disorder, also commonly referred to as manic depression, is a unique form of depression in which a child alternates between manic highs and depressive lows on a regular basis, often shifting from one to the other in the matter of days or even hours. You might think of it as someone having a more sensitive mood dial; their moods are easily pushed in one direction or the other, and so they shift from euphoric exuberance to depressive moods more easily than other people.
Bipolar disorder remains a somewhat controversial diagnosis in children and teens. Up until about a decade or two ago, it was widely believed that children couldn’t be bipolar. Many of the symptoms of bipolar disorder, such as rapid mood swings, are inherent to childhood itself. It can also resemble ADHD (another controversial diagnosis). So many experts are justifiably concerned about diagnosing this disorder in young children.
Historically, the condition is rarely diagnosed in children or adults 65 or older (Weissman, Bland & Canino, 1996), though this has been changing in recent years, as more and more children are being given this label. “While we are learning more about Bipolar II in children and teens,” says Dr. Ronald Fieve, “it is still extremely difficult to diagnose this ailment in young people, especially when moodiness and acting out against authority are two traits that coexist with most normal adolescents.” (Fieve, 2006, p. 213) He also notes that children tend to experience more rapidly cycling bipolar moods. This could be a difference in the way they express the disorder, or it could be a sign that other things are being misconstrued as bipolar.
Bipolar disorder tends to run in the family. It’s estimated that 40% of first-degree relatives of a person with bipolar disorder also have the condition. (Fieve, 2006, p. 66) If a parent struggles with bipolar disorder, there’s also a strong likelihood their children will have some type of diagnosable mental health issue: Since the 1990s, cross-sectional studies have found that around 50% of children of bipolar parents meet the criteria for at least one DSM disorder. (Chang, Steiner & Ketter, 2000)
Signs & symptoms of bipolar disorder in children
Bipolar children alternate between states of depression and mania. The symptoms of depression are the same as those for normal depression, which we already discussed earlier in this book. The difference between normal depression and bipolar disorder is the manic states that accompany it.
Signs of hypomania in children
- Feeling on top of the world
- Reduced need for sleep
- Over-confidence in the things they can do
- Becoming extremely social
- Racing thoughts
- Talking a lot in fast speech
- Risk taking behavior
- Hyper sexuality
- Reckless decisions, such as spending money in a careless way
- Rebellion against parents or teachers
- Easily irritable
Fights with friends or teachers.