Bipolar Disorder in Children and Adolescents

Although bipolar disorder is often thought to be an adult disease, studies indicate that bipolar disorder is just as likely to appear in childhood or early adolescence.  However, the disease may be different – and possibly even more severe – in young people. 

More research is needed to improve our understanding of how to diagnose and treat bipolar disorder in the young.  Recognizing the disease in young people is especially challenging because its symptoms often appear similar to or occur alongside more common childhood conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorders, disruptive or conduct disorders, or even the “mood swings” common in early and middle adolescence. 

What are the symptoms of bipolar disorder in young people?

Patients with bipolar disorder experience extreme variations in mood, commonly referred to as “mood swings,” ranging from episodes of depression to episodes of mania or intense elevations of mood.  To read more about the most common symptoms of bipolar disorder and how the disease is diagnosed and treated, click here.

The symptoms of bipolar disorder differ in young people than in adults in several significant ways. Unlike adult onset disease, where mania appears in elevated moods or euphoria, mania in children is more likely indicated by:

Bipolar disorder’s symptoms also differ in young people based on their developmental stage:

Younger children’s symptoms may include:

Older pre-adolescents and adolescents are more likely to experience mixed symptoms and symptoms that cycle more continuously and more rapidly between depressive and manic states than what is observed in patients with adult-onset bipolar disorder.

How is bipolar disorder diagnosed and treated?

The good news is that, just like in adults, young people with bipolar disorder can be diagnosed and treated effectively.   

Together with a healthcare provider, you can find out whether your child is experiencing depression or bipolar disorder, and help your child chart a course to feeling and functioning better.  This website provides tips and tools for starting that conversation with your child’s pediatrician or nurse practitioner, or with a community health professional.  See Talking with your healthcare provider.

Safe and effective treatments are available for people of all ages who suffer from bipolar disorder. To learn more about the many treatment options that may be available to help your child overcome depression, visit Know Your Treatment Options.