Is bipolar disorder in children possible? Most of what I've read says bipolar disorder develops in adults.

Answers from Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, M.D.

Bipolar disorder in children is possible. It's most often diagnosed in older children and teenagers, but bipolar disorder can occur in children of any age. As in adults, bipolar disorder in children can cause mood swings from the highs of hyperactivity or euphoria (mania) to the lows of serious depression.

Emotional upheaval and unruly behaviors are a normal part of childhood and the teen years, and in most cases they aren't a sign of a mental health problem that requires treatment. All kids have rough periods — it's normal to feel down, irritable, angry, hyperactive or rebellious at times. However, if your child's symptoms are severe, ongoing or causing significant problems, it may be more than just a phase.

Here are some signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder in children:

  • Severe mood swings that are different from their usual mood swings
  • Hyperactive, impulsive, aggressive or socially inappropriate behavior
  • Risky and reckless behaviors that are out of character, such as having frequent casual sex with many different partners (sexual promiscuity), alcohol or drug abuse, or wild spending sprees
  • Insomnia or significantly decreased need for sleep
  • Depressed or irritable mood most of the day, nearly every day during a depressive episode
  • Grandiose and inflated view of own capabilities
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors in older children and teens

Children with bipolar disorder experience symptoms in distinct episodes. Between these episodes, children return to their usual behavior and mood.

Keep in mind, a number of other childhood disorders cause bipolar-like symptoms, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, anxiety disorders and major depression. Diagnosis can be challenging because these and other mental health conditions often occur along with bipolar disorder.

If your child has serious mood swings, depression or behavior problems, consult a mental health provider who specializes in working with children and teens. Mood and behavior issues caused by bipolar disorder or other mental health conditions can lead to major difficulties. Early treatment can help prevent serious consequences and decrease the impact of mental health problems on your child as he or she gets older.

Jul. 16, 2013 See more Expert Answers