Once upon a time, Bipolar Disorder was only a mental illness recognized in adults. Over the past few years however, this disorder has become something that has been recognized in children. Many feel that this is just the new buzz diagnosis from the medical community, but I have personally seen cases of bipolar disorder in children. Maybe more kids are diagnosed with this serious disorder then should be, but regardless of that, it is a real disorder that does touch the lives of children.
What is Bipolar Disorder?
Once known as manic depression, bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes your mood and energy to shift in dramatic ways. There are severe ups and downs in the mood of a person suffering from bipolar disorder. This is difficult for adults to deal with even though they have an understanding of what is going on, but for children, it can be very scary. Most children are not capable of understanding such an illness and it can make them abnormal and distanced from others their age. Typically, this illness develops during the late teenage years or during the early adult years, but it is now becoming clearer that signs and symptoms are beginning to show during early childhood.
What are the Symptoms?
People with bipolar disorder have intense mood swings. They can be overjoyed and completely blissful or they can be dangerously angry or deeply depressed. It has been found that children with bipolar disorder tend to experience odd sleep patterns, changes in energy levels and change is amounts of activity compared to how they usually behave and engage. Other signs and symptoms include:
ØThe child experiencing an overly hyper or silly mood that is not typical
ØInability to concentrate
ØPartaking in risky behavior that goes beyond typical childhood mischief.
ØStaying in a sad mood
ØHaving little interest in things that used to be enjoyable
ØNoticeable changes in eating
ØThoughts of death or talking about death
ØSevere behavior problems beyond what is normal for the child
You may look at this list and worry that your child may suffer from bipolar disorder but rest assured, most children have at least a few of these symptoms. They may be going through a stage that will soon pass. The important thing when looking at a list of signs and symptoms is to remember that your child is not bipolar simply because he his one or two symptoms. Many other things are taken into consideration before a diagnosis this serious is given.
How is Diagnosis Made in Children?
While there are no medical tests that can give a proper diagnosis for bipolar disorder, things such as blood tests and brain scans may be used. This is not to determine if your child is bipolar but to rule out any other medical possibility. When it comes right down to it, the only real way to be diagnosed is through careful questioning and observation. Questions about your child’s habits such as sleep patterns, eating habits, and mood changes will be covered as well as family history. If someone else in your family has bipolar disorder than your child is at more of a risk of getting it as well. The final diagnosis is made from the guidelines found in the DSM or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The DSM has defined four specific types of bipolar disorder:
ØBipolar 1 Disorder
ØBipolar 2 Disorder
ØBipolar Disorder Not Otherwise Specified
Your child’s health care professional will do a case study and determine which type of bipolar disorder your child has, if any.
Differences for Children vs. Adults
While the symptoms tend to be the same, studies have shown that when a child is found to have bipolar disorder, the symptoms come on in a much more severe way. Adults with bipolar disorder can get the illness under control more easily. This is not so for children. It appears that children who are bipolar tend to have more frequent mood shifts that are more severe in nature. They also are sick more often than other children. Suicidal thoughts are also very common in bipolar children. These signs must be taken very seriously. Having an illness like this can be very confusing for a child and therefore harder to cope with.
Treating the Bipolar Child
While there is not a cure for bipolar disorder, there are ways to treat it in both adults and children. The main treatments are therapy and medication. Many times it is beneficial to use both of these to get the most out of the treatment. While medication can be a good thing for the bipolar child, doctors are still in the early stages of treating children with this disorder and only have adult studies to go on. Studies have been started on this topic though since the diagnosis is becoming more common. This is an important point to remember because the way children respond and react to psychiatric drugs can be very different than how adults respond and react. Some doctors are beginning to use adult medications in an experimental capacity on children with bipolar disorder. Currently, there are only three drugs approved by the FDA to treat bipolar children:
Also commonly used are mood stabilizers and antidepressants. Be sure to know all the side effects of these types of medications before your children begin taking them. Watch closely and report any adverse reactions to the prescribing physician.
Therapy for Bipolar Children
In addition to medication, therapy can be very useful in helping your child to work within his or her capacity to deal with their disorder. An especially useful tool is cognitive behavioral therapy. With this type of treatment your child can learn how to change any harmful patterns of thoughts and behaviors. In some cases, family therapy may be needed as having a bipolar child can take its emotional toll on the family unit as a whole.
Having a child with bipolar disorder can be a major challenge for you and for them. They are scared and you are their protectors. It can be hard to stay strong for them and you do not have to do it alone. If you find yourself needing more support take to the web and find a parental support group where you can find other parents who have children with bipolar disorder. This can be very cathartic and if you are feeling stronger then you can pass some of that strength onto your child.
Christie Hunter is registered clinical counselor in British Columbia and co-founder of Theravive. She is a certified management accountant. She has a masters of arts in counseling psychology from Liberty University with specialty in marriage and family and a post-graduate specialty in trauma resolution. In 2007 she started Theravive with her husband in order to help make mental health care easily attainable and nonthreatening. She has a passion for gifted children and their education. You can reach Christie at 360-350-8627 or write her at christie - at - theravive.com.