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Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens - Topic Overview

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.

  • A manic episode lasts at least a week. It is a period of extremely happy, aggressive, and/or angry mood that occurs with some of the following symptoms. The child or teen may:
    • Have little need for sleep.
    • Have high energy levels.
    • Have extreme confidence in themselves.
    • Talk very fast.
    • Have many thoughts at once.
    • Seem very distracted and unable to focus.
    • Touch his or her genitals, use sexual language, and approach others in a sexual way.
    • Act inappropriate or are intrusive in social settings.
  • A depressive episode is a period of sad, low, or cranky mood that occurs with some of the following symptoms. The child or teen may:
    • Not find pleasure in things they normally enjoy.
    • Have low energy or feel "slowed down."
    • Have sleep and appetite changes.
    • Have low self-esteem.
    • Feel guilty or worthless.
    • Withdraw from friends or family.
    • Have difficulty focusing.
    • Have thoughts about death or suicide.

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.

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