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Bipolar Disorder and Teens: What You Need To Know

by   -  November 2nd, 2015

by Aleutie, despositphotos.com
by Aleutie, despositphotos.com
The teenage years are already defined by some pretty intense mood swings. While this is a fact of life, there are cases when parents should take note and even take action. For families with a history of Bipolar Disorder, children are 9x more likely to also develop it; typically becoming symptomatic between the later teenage years and into early adulthood.

There are several factors that can contribute to Bipolar Disorder. Some of them include genetics, abnormal brain structure and brain function, and even other anxiety disorders.

One of the problems with diagnosing Bipolar Disorder in children is that the symptoms can be so similar to those of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), conduct disorders, and even normal developmental angst. One of the most notable differences between children who suffer from Bipolar Disorder and adults with the same diagnosis really comes down to duration. A child could cycle between a manic episode to a depressive episode in a single day, where an adult could take weeks, months, and even years to cycle.

Mood Swings vs Manic/Depressive

If teens normally develop mood swings wide enough to cause whiplash, how can a parent tell the difference between what’s considered typical and what’s actually Bipolar? There’s currently no blood test or brain scan that can be done to confirm the existence of BD.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, children and teens having a manic episode may exhibit symptoms like:

• Feeling very happy or act silly in a way that's unusual for them

• Having a very short temper

• Talking really fast about a lot of different things

• Having trouble sleeping and not feel tired – possibly staying awake for days

• Having trouble staying focused

• Talking and think about sex more often

• Doing risky things

On the other side, children and teens having a depressive episode may exhibit symptoms like:

• Feeling very sad

• Complaining about pain a lot (like stomachaches and headaches)

• Sleeping too little or too much

• Feeling guilty and worthless

• Eating too little or too much

• Have little energy and no interest in fun activities

• Inflicting self-mutilation and other forms of self-harm

• Thinking about death or suicide


Self-harm and self-mutilation has been known to be linked to children and teens who suffer from Bipolar Disorder as a way to cope. Because anxiety disorders are closely linked with BD, self-harm is not unusual. It can come in myriad different approaches such as: cutting, burning, scratching, hitting, bruising, biting, head-banging, picking at the skin, and even hair pulling and chewing. If your child has exhibited signs and symptoms of self-harm or self-mutilation and has not yet been diagnosed, consider bringing them in to talk about these behaviors.


Another form of self-harm can come in the form of self-medication. When a child or teenager is aware something is not right, or when they’re having trouble dealing with a distressing issue or emotion, they may turn to drugs and/or alcohol to numb the pain and relieve some of the discomfort.


An astounding 25%-50% of those with Bipolar Disorder attempt suicide. Of those, 15% will die by suicide. While not all of those who utilize self-harm as a way to cope will attempt suicide, it’s important to watch for the warning signs. This can include such things as: talking about suicide often, talking about hopelessness, helplessness, and worthlessness, having a “death wish" by indulging in risky behaviors, hoarding pills, losing interest in the things they once enjoyed, and even seeing them put their affairs in order or tying up loose ends.

Ways to Help

There are a number of ways to be supportive of your child or teen with Bipolar disorder. Some are as simple as taking action, while others involve listening for what may not be said.

• Medication

If your child or teenager has been prescribed medication, it’s important to help them maintain a schedule for when they need to take it. Use pill timers, reminders of cellphones, and discuss the need to take them at certain intervals with teachers, principles, and headmasters. Keep an eye out for any unwelcome side effects, as well. The drugs your child may be prescribed may not be suited for their individual makeup. Taking note of how the drugs affect your child can help your family address any issues that may come from the medication. If necessary, it may mean changing to a different dosage, or even a different medication that will ultimately work better for your child.

• Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT can be highly effective for teenagers with Bipolar Disorder by helping them become aware of, and to describe, negative thoughts, feelings, or reactions. In doing so, a trained psychologist or psychiatrist will guide them to consider new ways to think and positive alternatives. They’re then urged to try out these new techniques throughout the week and discuss the outcomes in the next therapy session. Practicing these methods have been known to be very beneficial to many children and teens who have been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.

• Routines

By setting up routines, you can alleviate many of the stresses and anxiety that can flare up Bipolar Disorder. Having set waking, eating, exercise, and medication times, your child will be able to more effectively manage their disorder.

• Check in

Kids are in school much of the day. When you’re not sure how your child is really doing, it’s important to check in with the people who are around him or her all day. Talk to your child’s teachers to see how they’ve been doing. Additionally, by keeping in contact with your child’s teachers, you can help them understand their unique needs and work with them to provide the best learning environment for your child. Sometimes this may mean discussing the need for less homework, or an added break to take medications away from classmates.

• Suicidal Tendencies

No one wants to entertain the thought of their child taking their own life, but you also don’t want to stick your head in the sand. Bad things happen to good kids who are suffering and can’t seem to find a way out of the ups and downs of Bipolar. If your child has exhibited signs of suicidal tendencies, has threatened suicide, or has attempted it before – take this seriously and get them immediate help.

The important thing to note is that Bipolar Disorder is very treatable and there is no reason why someone diagnosed with BD cannot live a full, happy life. Regardless of what age a person is diagnosed, the key is to give them the tools to effectively manage the ups and downs of life and their disorder, to find healthier ways to cope with stress, anxiety, and emotional discord, and to redirect their initial thought process to a more positive outcome. All of these things can be accomplished for children and teens with BD with the help of their support system.

Please remember to seek the advice from your medical professionals for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan for your child. This article is meant as an overview to get you started on the road to finding the help and support your child or teenager may need.


Carissa Andrews is a freelance writer, graphic designer, and author. You can learn more about her at her website.

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The purpose of the above content is to raise awareness only and does not advocate treatment or diagnosis. This information should not be substituted for your physician's consultation and it should not indicate that use of the drug is safe and suitable for you or your (pet). Seek professional medical advice and treatment if you have any questions or concerns.
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