Bipolar disorder in children: Risk factors and symptoms

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness characterized by extreme swings in mood and thought. A person with bipolar disorder swings between periods of mania or less severe hypomania and depression.

The onset of bipolar disorder typically occurs during young adulthood, but teens and children can also be diagnosed.

Risk factors for bipolar in children

Upset and depressed child .

A person wIth bipolar disorder will experience alternating phases of depression and mania.

Similarly to many mental health disorders, there are a number of potential causes of bipolar, with scientists unable to point to a single reason for it occurring.

Children are thought to be more at risk due to the following factors:

  • Stress
  • Genetics
  • Drug and alcohol use
  • Biology

Stress can play a role in the development of bipolar in children. More precisely, how a child responds to elevated stress has been suggested as a contributor to the development of the bipolar disorder.

Therefore, children growing up in stressful situations may be at a higher risk of developing bipolar.

Genetics represents another risk factor for developing bipolar. A child who has a family member with bipolar may be more likely to develop the disorder. However, some research indicates that this is not a definite cause and effect, and a child with a parent with bipolar disorder may never develop the disease.

The use of drugs or alcohol may increase the chances of a child developing bipolar disorder. Some individuals with bipolar disorder have drug or alcohol addictions, as well.

Biological differences may also play a role in increasing the risk of developing the bipolar disorder during childhood. Researchers have found there is a difference in the activities in the brains of children and adults who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.


Parents arguing causing distress to child.

There are many potential causes of bipolar disorder, including stress and genetics.

Symptoms will vary among people diagnosed with bipolar. Some people may experience the symptoms to different degrees, and symptoms may also change over time.

During manic or less severe hypomanic episodes, a person experiences an elevated mood and energy level. Symptoms of mania and hypomania must include at least three of the following:

  • Increased energy and activity
  • Unusual talkativeness
  • Abnormally upbeat mood
  • Increased distractibility
  • Jumpy reactions
  • Heightened sense of self-worth or confidence
  • Decreased need for sleep or inability to sleep
  • Uncontrolled, fast-paced thoughts
  • Poor decision-making

During depressive periods, a person experiences an extreme low. Symptoms of depressive episodes must include at least five of the following symptoms:

  • Sleeping too much or insomnia
  • Feeling sad, hopeless, empty, or tearful
  • Feeling worthless
  • Inappropriate feelings of guilt
  • Slowed behavior
  • Lack of interest in activities, including ones normally enjoyed
  • Fluctuations in weight
  • Decreased or increased appetite
  • Restlessness
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of energy
  • Suicidal thoughts or tendencies
  • Decreased ability to think or concentrate

Children may also show symptoms of irritability, extreme anger, and may not reach expected physical milestones, such as age-appropriate height and weight.

Symptoms in children are often difficult to identify. Children and teens go through natural stages of mood swings, but these mood swings are generally less severe than bipolar disorder.

Stress or trauma could also trigger bipolar-like symptoms. A number of other mental health conditions may also cause similar symptoms to appear.

Coexisting conditions in children

It is not uncommon for a child to have additional mental health conditions in addition to bipolar disorder. In some cases, additional mental health conditions may aggravate bipolar symptoms. Unfortunately, other conditions may make treatment less effective.

Some possible coexisting conditions might include the following:

  • Anxiety disorder
  • Eating disorders, such as anorexia
  • Drug or alcohol abuse or dependence
  • Physical health problems, including heart problems and obesity
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism


Child psychologist diagnosing a child during therapy.

A diagnosis of bipolar disorder may be made by a child psychologist after observing the child’s behavior.

Children with bipolar disorder are especially difficult to diagnose.

Symptoms of highs and lows often appear to parents, teachers, and caregivers as normal parts of the development. It is also possible to mistake these, as the symptoms of other disorders.

In order for a child to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, they need to exhibit symptoms of both mania or hypomania and depressive moods. Also, a diagnosis of bipolar requires that a child fit into one of the types of bipolar.

There are several types of bipolar disorder, each with their own diagnosis criteria:

Bipolar I disorder is characterized by having one manic episode that is either preceded or followed by a hypomanic or depressive episode. In some cases, the child may experience psychosis or a detachment from reality.

Bipolar II disorder is diagnosed when a person has at least one major depressive episode and at least one hypomanic episode. With bipolar II, a person cannot have had a manic episode.

Cyclothymic disorder occurs when a person has several episodes of hypomania symptoms and periods of depressive symptoms over at least a 2-year period. In children, the period is shortened to being at least 1 year.

Other types include periods of mania or depressive episodes induced by substance use or another medical condition. Excessive alcohol use and multiple sclerosis (MS) may trigger a bipolar reaction.


Bipolar disorder is treated with a combination of medication and therapy.

A doctor may try a number of different drugs to help get symptoms under control, as every child responds differently to these. A doctor may need to try different types or combinations before finding the right one.

Children’s developing bodies can alter how effective medication is, as well. A doctor will be consistently monitoring and adjusting medications to help find the right balance.

While receiving medication, a child should also see a therapist. Therapy can consist of talking through emotions, as well as helping to manage behaviors.

How to support a child or teen

Helping a child with bipolar disorder can be frustrating and difficult at times. It is important for caregivers and parents to provide a stable, nurturing environment for the child to feel safe and supported.

Parents and caregivers may consider doing some or all of the following:

  • Be patient and understanding through the changes in mood
  • Seek and follow through with treatment
  • Encourage communication with questions and by actively listening
  • Be encouraging and positive about treatments, stressing that they can make life better while always listening to concerns about side effects
  • Encourage and help the child have fun

Parents and caregivers should note that finding the right treatment may take some time, but a loving and supportive home environment can help the child or teen manage their symptoms.

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