Childhood Bipolar Disorder: Symptoms, Signs And Facts

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Bipolar disorder is more than shifting moods. It’s a chronic brain disorder most commonly marked by bouts of extreme and often impairing changes in thinking, mood and behavior. Symptoms may emerge gradually or suddenly, and they can appear at any time in a person’s life. Researchers have identified cases of bipolar disorder in every age group studied, including preschoolers.

Childhood bipolar disorder, also known as pediatric bipolar disorder, is much less commonly diagnosed than adults with the disorder. In fact, its very existence is still a matter of academic debate. However, growing evidence suggests that it does exist. It can just be extremely challenging to diagnose since many common childhood behaviors mimic the symptoms.

Bipolar disorder does not affect every child in the same way. The intensity and duration of symptoms as well as the child’s response to treatment with their Newport Beach child psychiatrist vary greatly. That being said, there are some common symptoms. Usually a child or teen would have to display four or more of these symptoms before a diagnosis will be considered:

  • Rapidly changing moods lasting from a few hours to a few days
  • Intense temper tantrums
  • Periods of hyperactivity followed by lethargy
  • Extreme sadness or lack of interest in play
  • Explosive and destructive rages
  • Night terrors
  • Separation anxiety
  • Total defiance of authority
  • Excessive involvement in multiple projects and activities
  • Sleeping too little or sleeping too much (sometimes both at different times)
  • Risky, daredevil behavior and a grandiose belief in his or her own abilities
  • Strong craving for carbohydrates and sweets
  • Precocious sexual behavior
  • Racing thoughts and pressure to keep talking
  • Telling stories or drawing pictures with graphic violence

Many of these behaviors are not indicative of a possible disorder and are just part of normal childhood development. Childhood bipolar disorder is characterized by many of these symptoms occurring together, usually parked by rapid mood swings and hyperactivity. The symptoms must occur for more than two weeks, happen in more than just one setting and cause the child or teen extreme distress.

While the child or teen’s symptoms are being analyzed, it is important to find out if it is bipolar disorder or something else, but also to see if another disorder might be present. Bipolar disorder is often accompanied with other disorders such as depression and anxiety. In some children, proper treatment for bipolar disorder clears up those other symptoms. In other cases, bipolar disorder might simply be an explanation of part of a more complicated situation.

So how is pediatric bipolar disorder treated? The treatment is usually thought of as a four step process: evaluation and diagnosis of symptoms, acute care for psychosis or suicidal ideas, movement toward a full recovery from the depressed and manic states, and mental health maintenance. The treatment for children and teens is modeled after the treatments provided to adults.

Beginning a relationship with a Newport Beach child psychiatrist is important, and so is family focused therapy with a cognitive behavioral component. Having a child or teenager with bipolar disorder will affect parents and siblings. In family and individual sessions, communication issues can be addressed and family members can learn to adjust to their new situation.

Medication is also essential in the treatment of childhood bipolar disorder. Psychotherapy can help the child limit and manage manic and depressive episodes, but an effective course of medication can help the brain regulate itself to more normal emotional responses. With this disorder, cognitive therapy and medication go hand in hand.

There are also some lifestyle adjustments that can help a child or teen with bipolar disorder, just like they can help a diagnosed adult. Physical exercise can help keep depressive episodes to a minimum and help the child sleep. Adequate sleep can help stabilize the mood, and natural supplements like fish oil and and amino acids are also natural mood stabilizers. Teens with bipolar disorder should make sure to avoid alcohol and illegal drugs since they can make manic episodes worse. Teens and young children alike can benefit from the deep breathing exercises learned in yoga.

Just as it is vital to get the affected child help, it is extremely important for parents of teens and children with bipolar disorder to care for themselves. They need to understand that children with bipolar disorder have a chemical imbalance in their brains and a distorted perception of reality. By picking their battles, they can avoid some unnecessary conflict. Parents should make sure to get adequate sleep, exercise and steer clear of substances themselves. By staying balanced, they can help their child stay balanced.

There is no known cure for bipolar disorder, and the diagnosed children may always need medication and therapy. But it is also possible that they will outgrow their symptoms and enjoy a stable adulthood without medication. Since there is still much to be learned about pediatric bipolar disorder, it is impossible to know what the odds are that someone who was diagnosed as a child will outgrow it in adulthood. As with all mental health conditions, bipolar disorder should be treated one day at a time.