While it is considered normal for most children to have mood swings from time to time, some experience severe shifts in mood that are out of their control and exhibit such extreme behavior they are unable to function normally. These children might be suffering from bipolar disorder, which is also sometimes referred to as childhood, pediatric or early onset bipolar disorder or manic-depression. Researchers have found that children with bipolar disorder have too much activity in the part of the brain that controls emotions and not enough activity in the part that regulates clear, rational thought – but they do not know why a bipolar brain develops the way it does. Many children with bipolar disorder come from families with members who have the condition or other mood disorders, but this doesn’t mean that children in that family will definitely have bipolar disorder. A family history of drug or alcohol abuse also increases the risk of bipolar disorder in children.
Signs of Bipolar Disorder in Children
Bipolar disorder can be difficult to diagnose conclusively in young children. The condition does not show up on a brain scan, and it is possible for health care professionals to mislabel children. Some symptoms of bipolar disorder, for example, are similar to those of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Children with bipolar disorder shift unpredictably between very “up” or high moods (manic phase) and “down” or low moods (depressive phase). During a manic period, a child with bipolar disorder can go from happy to irritable to aggressive in moments and be full of energy and talk nonstop and very quickly. It’s not unusual for the child to sleep very little during this time. He or she can be easily distracted, get involved in a number of activities and have an unrealistic sense of invincibility, which could result in potentially dangerous risk-taking behavior. During a depressive phase, a bipolar child will withdraw from contact with others. There could be long periods of sadness and crying with too much sleeping, too much eating and complaints of physical ailments. Energy levels drop, and activities that previously were enjoyable now are not. Self-esteem plummets, replaced by feelings of worthlessness. In extreme cases, children with bipolar disorder could become suicidal. Not every child with bipolar disorder will demonstrate all of these characteristics, and if your child exhibits one or more of these behaviors it does not necessarily mean that he or she is bipolar. If you have serious concerns about your child or if troubling behavior continues for several weeks, be sure to consult a health care professional and get a proper clinical diagnosis.
Treatment for Bipolar Disorder in Children
Bipolar disorder is a serious condition that does not go away over time. But bipolar disorder in children can be treated, and to some degree the extreme mood swings can be controlled. A child who demonstrates signs of bipolar disorder should be evaluated by a mental health professional with specific training in treating children. A physical exam should be performed as well to determine if a physical condition might be causing the child’s symptoms. Parents and health care professionals should then discuss a treatment plan that will most likely include both psychotherapy and mood-stabilizing medication, which must be carefully monitored for side effects. Drug-based treatment of children with bipolar disorder is a relatively new practice, so no studies have yet been done on the long-term effects of these drugs on children. Treatment programs for bipolar children often involve both individual therapy for the child – to help them understand what’s happening, realize that they have a medical condition and have not done anything wrong and learn coping and adaptive skills – plus family education and counseling. Children with bipolar disorder are often best served by going to a school for children with special needs, as regular public and private school professionals may not have the skills needed to cope with their behavior issues. It is also advisable for parents to seek out support groups and other mental health service associations for further assistance.