Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens: A Parent’s Guide From the National Institute of Mental Health
All parents can relate to the many changes their kids go through as they grow up. But sometimes it's hard to tell if a child is just going through a "phase," or perhaps showing signs of something more serious.
Recently, doctors have been diagnosing more children with bipolar disorder, sometimes called manic-depressive illness. But what does this illness really mean for a child?
What is bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood and energy. It can also make it hard for someone to carry out day-to-day tasks, such as going to school or hanging out with friends. Symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe. They are different from the normal ups and downs that everyone goes through from time to time. They can result in damaged relationships, poor school performance, and even suicide. But bipolar disorder can be treated, and people with this illness can lead full and productive lives.
Bipolar disorder often develops in a person's late teens or early adult years, but some people have their first symptoms during childhood. At least half of all cases start before age 25.
What are common symptoms of bipolar disorder in children and teens?
Youth with bipolar disorder experience unusually intense emotional states that occur in distinct periods called "mood episodes." An overly joyful or overexcited state is called a manic episode, and an extremely sad or hopeless state is called a depressive episode. Sometimes, a mood episode includes symptoms of both mania and depression. This is called a mixed state. People with bipolar disorder also may be explosive and irritable during a mood episode.
Extreme changes in energy, activity, sleep, and behavior go along with these changes in mood. Symptoms of bipolar disorder are described below.
Symptoms of mania include:
- Being in an overly silly or joyful mood that's unusual for your child. It is different from times when he or she might usually get silly and have fun.
- Having an extremely short temper. This is an irritable mood that is unusual.
- Sleeping little but not feeling tired
- Talking a lot and having racing thoughts
- Having trouble concentrating, attention jumping from one thing to the next in an unusual way
- Talking and thinking about sex more often
- Behaving in risky ways more often, seeking pleasure a lot, and doing more activities than usual
Symptoms of depression include:
- Being in a sad mood that lasts a long time
- Losing interest in activities they once enjoyed
- Feeling worthless or guilty
- Complaining about pain more often, such as headaches, stomach aches, and muscle pains
- Eating a lot more or less and gaining or losing a lot of weight
- Sleeping or oversleeping when these were not problems before
- Losing energy
- Recurring thoughts of death or suicide death or suicide
How does bipolar disorder affect children and teens differently than adults?
Bipolar disorder that starts during childhood or during the teen years is called early-onset bipolar disorder. Early-onset bipolar disorder seems to be more severe than the forms that first appear in older teens and adults. Youth with bipolar disorder are different from adults with bipolar disorder. Young people with the illness appear to have more frequent mood switches, are sick more often, and have more mixed episodes.
Watch out for any sign of suicidal thinking or behaviors. Take these signs seriously. On average, people with early-onset bipolar disorder have greater risk for attempting suicide than those whose symptoms start in adulthood.
What treatments are available for children and teens with bipolar disorder?
To date, there is no cure for bipolar disorder. However, treatment with medications, psychotherapy (talk therapy), or both may help people get better.
It's important for you to know that children sometimes respond differently to psychiatric medications than adults do.
To treat children and teens with bipolar disorder, doctors often rely on information about treating adults. This is because there haven't been many studies on treating young people with the illness, although several have been started recently.
One large study with adults funded by NIMH is the Systematic Treatment Enhancement Program for Bipolar Disorder. This study found that treating adults with medications and intensive psychotherapy for about nine months helped them get better. These adults got better faster and stayed well longer than adults treated with less intensive psychotherapy for six weeks. Combining medication treatment and psychotherapies may help young people with early-onset bipolar disorder as well. However, it's important for you to know that children sometimes respond differently to psychiatric medications than adults do.
Once the diagnosis of bipolar disorder is made, the treatment of children and adolescents is based mainly on experience with adults, since as yet there is very limited data on the efficacy and safety of mood stabilizing medications in youth.
The essential treatment for this disorder in adults involves the use of appropriate doses of mood stabilizers, most typically lithium and/or valproate, which are often very effective for controlling mania and preventing recurrences of manic and depressive episodes. Research on the effectiveness of these and other medications in children and adolescents with bipolar disorder is ongoing. In addition, studies are investigating various forms of psychotherapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, to complement medication treatment for this illness in young people.
Before starting medication, the doctor will want to determine your child's physical and mental health. This is called a "baseline" assessment. Your child will need regular follow-up visits to monitor treatment progress and side effects. Most children with bipolar disorder will also need long-term or even lifelong medication treatment. This is often the best way to manage symptoms and prevent relapse, or a return of symptoms.
It's better to limit the number and dose of medications. A good way to remember this is "start low, go slow." Talk to the psychiatrist about using the smallest amount of medication that helps relieve your child's symptoms. To judge a medication's effectiveness, your child may need to take a medication for several weeks or months. The doctor needs this time to decide whether to switch to a different medication. Because children's symptoms are complex, it's not unusual for them to need more than one type of medication.
To date, lithium (sometimes known as Eskalith), risperidone (Risperdal), and aripiprazole (Abilify) are the only medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat bipolar disorder in young people.
Other types of medications also can be used to treat bipolar disorder. Information on medications can change. For the most up to date information on use and side effects contact the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website. You can also find more information in the NIMH Medications booklet.
In addition to medication, psychotherapy ("talk" therapy) can be an effective treatment for bipolar disorder. Studies in adults show that it can provide support, education, and guidance to people with bipolar disorder and their families. Psychotherapy may also help children keep taking their medications to stay healthy and prevent relapse.
Children and teens may also benefit from therapies that address problems at school, work, or in the community.
What can children and teens with bipolar disorder expect from treatment?
There is no cure for bipolar disorder, but it can be treated effectively over the long term. Doctors and families of children with bipolar disorder should keep track of symptoms and treatment effects to decide whether changes to the treatment plan are needed.
Working closely with your child's doctor and therapist and talking openly about treatment choices can make treatment more effective. You may need to talk about changing the treatment plan occasionally to help your child manage the illness most effectively.
For more information
- Visit the National Library of Medicine's MedlinePlus and En Español
- Find information on NIMH supported clinical trials, the Clinical trials at NIMH in Bethesda, MD or visit the National Library of Medicine Clinical Trials Database
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NIH Publication No. 08-3679
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