Treatment for Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens
Bipolar disorder is an illness that causes the brain to be unable to maintain a calm or steady mood. Roughly 1% of the population struggles with this mental health disorder. Although it usually develops in the late teen or early adult years, it can appear in children of any age. When found in children or young teens, it is called early-onset bipolar disorder.
Symptoms of early-onset bipolar disorder are typically more frequent and more extreme than the symptoms found in adults. While adults with bipolar disorder have mood swings over the course of days or weeks, children’s mood swings usually occur over the course of hours or minutes.
Causes of Bipolar Disorder
First, recognize that bipolar disorder is a chemical imbalance in the brain. It is an illness, not a behavior issue or a parenting issue. The specific causes is difficult to determine, but include a variety of factors such as:
- Abnormal brain structure
- Presence of other disorders such as anxiety disorder, ADHD, depression, etc.
Symptoms: Manic-Depressive Episodes
Bipolar disorder was formerly called manic depression because the illness causes frequent swings from mania to depression. Below are some of the symptoms of both manic episodes and depressive episodes, both of which will occur in cycles in someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
– Manic episode symptoms:
- Acting silly/happy, very high energy
- Insomnia or ability to stay up for long periods of time
- Act impulsively or take part in risky behaviors, including sexual promiscuity, substance abuse, etc.
- Very short temper
- Aggressive or inconsolable
- Agitated with signs of racing thoughts
- Inflated self-esteem and feelings of motivation
– Depressive episode symptoms:
- Complain about aches and pains
- Have low self-worth
- No energy or interest in activities
- Suicidal thoughts/gestures
- Isolate from family and friends
- Difficulty concentrating
- Gain or lose significant amounts of weight
Parenting a Child or Teen with Bipolar Disorder
Parenting a child or teen with bipolar disorder can be exhausting, frustrating, and painful. One of the most painful aspects can be the judgment of others who view your child’s issues as the result of “bad parenting.” It is common that the symptoms will show up most strongly in the home, rather than at school or in the presence of doctors. This is because home is often your child’s safe haven where they know they will be loved unconditionally, which gives them the freedom to let their true feelings out. If you know that your child is struggling with bipolar disorder, make a conscious effort to separate yourself from the thoughts or judgments of others while seeking out positive supports.
Another one of the most painful and frustrating aspects of raising a child with this disorder comes from their distorted perception of reality. A child may actually believe something that everyone else knows to be false, or even have hallucinations and delusions. It is also common for children with bipolar disorder to make up lies to see if they can get others to believe them, giving them a feeling of power.
If you are parenting a child with bipolar disorder, the first strongly recommended step is to seek help from a therapist. A trained professional can help you better understand your child’s illness, and give you the tools to help them. They may also recommend medication to help your child balance their moods. Aside from getting treatment for bipolar disorder, here are a few other strategies that some parents of bipolar children have found to be successful:
- Help your child separate themselves from the illness. For example, if you see them beginning to show aggression say something like, “You sound like you’re feeling very angry today, is that why you just yelled at me?” This takes the blame off them and puts it on their feelings, helping them diagnose why they acted in the way that they did.
- Pick your battles. Choose to address the most serious issues first, and let the little ones slide. Prioritize behavioral issues and then act accordingly.
- Keep a chart of your teen or child’s behavior, sleep patterns, mood swings etc. to help doctors best know how to treat them.
- Remove any potentially dangerous items from your home. Knives, guns, medications, etc. should be locked up or removed. Even if you don’t feel that your child is at a point where they would harm themselves or others, the nature of bipolar disorder is that it can shift very quickly. Taking extra precautions will protect both you and your child in the long run.
- If your child is having trouble in school, work with the teacher(s) to create an individual behavioral plan, such as the example found here: http://bipolarchild.com/resources/model-iep/
- Don’t compare your child to another child with bipolar or other mental health disorder. Every child is different, and bipolar disorder can manifest itself if many different ways. Don’t get discouraged by children with bipolar that seem “farther ahead” than your child, and don’t judge parents whose bipolar child seems “further behind.”