If you’re a parent of an adolescent or teen, you’re likely used to, or at least aware of, the seemingly constant changes children go through while growing up. But this doesn’t mean it’s always easy to tell whether or not your child is simply going through yet another “phase,” or if what you’re seeing are signs of a more serious problem…
Over the course of the past decade, more and more teens who exhibit ongoing irritability or signs of anxiety or depression have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
But what is bipolar disorder? And what does such a diagnosis mean for your child and you?
What Is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder – which used to be referred to as manic-depressive disorder – is a mental disorder that is characterized by wild swings in both energy levels and moods for those that suffer from it.
The mood swings of those suffering from bipolar disorder are a far cry from, and much more severe than, the normal changes in mood we all experience occasionally. They can make even normal day-to-day activities, such as going to school, doing homework, and caring on healthy relationship with friends and family members, difficult in the extreme.
While many consider bipolar disorder to be something that strikes in adulthood, it often develops during the teen years with half of all cases beginning before the age of 25.
Fortunately, bipolar disorder is a treatable illness and those suffering from it can go on to lead productive, fulfilling lives.
Recognizing Bipolar Disorder in Teens and Adolescents
Bipolar disorder is characterized by what are commonly referred to as “mood episodes,” which are intense emotional states that can last for days. Periods of extreme exuberance and overexcitement are known as “manic episodes” while periods marked by extreme feelings of unhappiness, despondence, or despair are known as “depressive episodes.”
But bipolar disorder isn’t this black and white… Some mood episodes – known as “mixed states” – may include symptoms of both depression and mania. And those suffering from bipolar disorder are often irritable, and may even become emotionally explosive, during any mood episode.
The following are some of the symptoms to watch out for if you believe your teen or someone else you know is suffering from bipolar disorder…
Manic Symptoms May Include:
- Racing thoughts and talking too quickly
- Sleeping little without being tired
- Atypical, overly happy or silly moods
- Irritability and extremely short tempers
- Difficulties staying focused and concentrating on specific tasks
- Taking on more tasks than usual
- Pleasure-seeking and risk-taking behaviors
- Hyper-sexuality, including thinking and talking about sex much more often than normal
Depressive Symptoms May Include:
- Persistent loss of energy
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Loss of interest in activities that once brought joy
- Difficulties sleeping or oversleeping when these were not previously issues
- Extreme shifts in eating patterns or weight
- Increasing complaints of physical pain, including muscle pains, stomach aches, and headaches
- Ongoing or continuous feelings of unhappiness or despondency
- Recurring thoughts of suicide or death
Now, to be sure, all of us exhibit some of these symptoms from time to time… And this includes our children. So, just because your teen or adolescent has one or more of the symptoms above does not mean they necessarily have bipolar disorder.
Remember, the symptoms of bipolar disorder described above tend to be much more extreme than the normal mood fluctuations we all experience occasionally and they tend to last for days on end.
In fact, because of the intensity and duration of the mood swings and symptoms associated with bipolar disorder, it isn’t uncommon for the symptoms of bipolar disorder to be confused with moderate or severe anxiety or depression.
To complicate matters further, an adolescent or teen suffering from bipolar disorder may not exhibit extreme mood swings at all. Moderate to mild depressive states – known as dysthymia – may be difficult to detect at first. But if these mild or moderate depressive states last for days or weeks, you need to seek professional help.
Likewise, your teen may show signs of increased energy and hyperactivity without the symptoms of full-blown mania. This mild to moderate heightened energy levels – known as hypomania – may not effect your child’s ability to function. However, if these periods are abnormal and last for days on end, you should still seek a professional diagnosis.
Does Bipolar Disorder Effect Teens Differently Than Adults?
When bipolar disorder develops in a person’s teens or adolescence, it is referred to as early-onset bipolar disorder. And, yes, there does seem to be a difference in both the severity and frequency of symptoms between teens and adults who suffer from bipolar disorder…
The symptoms of early-onset bipolar disorder tend to be more severe than when bipolar disorder develops in adulthood. Additionally, adolescents and teens with bipolar disorder appear to suffer from more frequent mood swings and often have more mixed episodes.
More seriously still, statistically speaking, it seems those with early-onset bipolar disorder are at greater risk of attempting suicide. In fact, one large study on bipolar disorder in children and teens found that more than a third of the study’s participants made at least one suicide attempt.
So, if your child has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder – or even if you’re simply concerned that they may be suffering from this illness – be sure to watch out for any signs of suicidal thoughts or behaviors and take such signs seriously. Suicidal thoughts are almost always symptoms of an illness that requires treatment.
How Is Early-Onset Bipolar Disorder Diagnosed?
Unfortunately, when it comes to diagnosing bipolar disorder, there are no clear-cut tests. However, a health professional may use a variety of tests, such as brain scans and blood tests, to rule out other possibilities for why your child is experiencing the symptoms they’re exhibiting. And a thorough medical exam can be helpful in detecting issues that commonly occur with bipolar disorder, such as alcohol and drug abuse.
Once other possible causes of your child’s symptoms have been ruled out, a mental health professional who has experience diagnosing bipolar disorder – such as psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, and other mental health professionals – will ask you a variety of questions about your child’s symptoms.
They will ask about energy levels, activities, eating and sleeping patterns, and about whether or not your child or any other family members have been diagnosed with any behavioral or mood disorders.
While mental health professionals will use guidelines from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, when diagnosing bipolar disorder, it should be clear that there is still much to be understood about this illness.
So, when talking to a mental health specialist, be sure to ask questions. Asking questions and getting answers can only help you better understand your child’s symptoms and the treatment options available…
We’ll discuss the treatment options available in another article. But know that, while there’s still much work to be done and much to be learned when it comes to diagnosing and treating bipolar disorder, it is an illness that can be treated effectively. So, if you believe your adolescent or teen is suffering from bipolar disorder, seek a professional diagnosis and know that your child and you have every chance in the world of moving forward in relationships and life with confidence and optimism for the future.