Bipolar is a growing issue, with young people more likely to screen positive than older people.
16-24 year olds are 8.5 times as likely to screen positive for bipolar as people aged 65-74.1  

As yet there are no separate guidelines for diagnosing children with bipolar, so medical professionals have to rely on adult criteria and their own judgement. Using adult criteria may cause problems as there do appear to be differences in the way bipolar appears in children compared to adults. The main differences are that children are more likely to have continuous, mixed state mood cycles, with severe irritability. Also, they may not have clear episodes with periods of wellness that are usually seen in adults.

The Child and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation (CABF) states that in children symptoms may include:


An expansive or irritable mood

Depression

Rapidly changing moods lasting a few hours to a few days

Explosive, lengthy, and often destructive rages

Separation anxiety

Defiance of authority

Hyperactivity, agitation, and distractibility

Sleeping little, or too much

Bed wetting and night terrors

Strong and frequent cravings, often for carbohydrates and sweets

Excessive involvement in multiple projects and activities

Impaired judgement, impulsivity, racing thoughts, and pressure to keep talking

Dare-devil behaviours

Inappropriate or precocious sexual behaviour

Delusions and hallucinations

Grandiose belief in own abilities that defy the laws of logic (ability to fly, for example)


CABF also states that the ‘…symptoms of bipolar diagnosis can emerge as early as infancy. Mothers often report that children later diagnosed with the disorder were extremely difficult to settle and slept erratically… and often had uncontrollable, seizure-like tantrums or rages out of proportion to any event.’ It can be difficult to judge the extent to which behaviour might be due to developmental issues and part of growing up, and what may be due to a disorder such as bipolar. This can also be dependent on the appropriate context: for example, when a child’s grandiose ideas, which are fine when playing with other children, constantly spill over into interactions with adults. As a friend of family member, you may be well aware that these mood swings are outside the boundary of what would be considered ‘ordinary’. 

If you are concerned that your child is experiencing extreme mood swings, it might be useful to keep a diary of day-to-day events to show how moods are fluctuating over time, and what impact they are having on your child’s behaviour (try using our mood scale and mood diary). This can then be discussed with your medical professional, along with any family history of mental health problems or alcohol/substance misuse.

It can also be useful to check that your doctor is aware that children and young people can experience bipolar disorder as this is not always widely known; even amongst medical professionals as it is still thought of as only affecting adults.

Useful Information

This information in this leaflet is aimed at the relatives, friends and support professionals of younger people and children with bipolar. It focuses on the very specific needs of children and young people with bipolar disorder, which can be quite different to those experienced by older people. 

Bipolar UK offer support for parents via our groups, we advise 16 years old + to work with us on groups or our eCommunity with parental consent, so accessing support as parents is important too: peer support services

Young Minds – The UK’s leading charity fighting for children and young people's mental health: young minds

The Mix – The UK’s leading support service for young people, offering free information and support for under 25s: the mix

 

 

1Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey: Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, England, 2014