What Is Bipolar Disorder And How Do I Know If My Kid Has It?

If you see something, say something ... to a psychiatrist.

by Mark Oliver
Originally Published: 
sad child sitting by tree
flickr / Jessica Lucia

In general, children’s mental health isn’t treated the same way as physical health. If your kid falls out of a tree, you’d cart them off to the hospital to fix that broken leg (although, a small percentage will opt for them to “rub some dirt in it”). If kids get depressed, it’s usually “chin up” and hope it’s a phase.

Mental health problems are often thought of as something that happen to other people. But they’re more common than we think. In fact, 1 in 5 Americans have mental health problems, and if these problem go untreated, it makes life a whole lot harder.

That’s why Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein, psychiatrist, President of the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, and host of the PBS series Healthy Minds with Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein wants parents to be proactive about their children’s mental health. Because when you notice that there’s something wrong, you can help — by getting them some help.

What Is Bipolar Disorder?

Also known commonly as manic depressive disorder, bipolar disorder is marked by severe mood changes; a person may jump from uncomfortably high bursts of energy to devastating pits of depression. How often the mood swings occur changes on a case-by-case basis (everyone’s emotional regulation is different). Some periods can last as long as a few weeks or as short as a few hours. But, no matter the length of swings, all cases of bipolarism are serious because they deal with emotional instability.

How Do You Know If Your Kid Has It?

It can be tricky to see the onset of bipolarism, especially because it regularly starts to appear in teenagers and is often mistaken as being a teenager. Of course it’s more than just teen angst or an infatuation with The Cure. If their moods are affecting how they function, then, per Borenstein “that should be a red flag.”

Another flag: The dark times in a bipolar child’s swings will be debilitating. “This is depression that is beyond the normal ups and downs of being a teenager,” he says. “The person may actually think about and talk about harming themselves. They may be tearful on a regular basis.”

Then, there’s the manic phases. “They may have increased levels of energy. They may have unrealistic or grandiose ideas that they’re going to have some extraordinary accomplishment beyond what we would consider a reasonable accomplishment.” This isn’t “the happy phase.” Dr. Borenstein says these episodes can be downright scary. “It might manifest itself as fearful kinds of thoughts.”

What To Look For In Younger Kids

A bipolar child will go through the aforementioned phases of manic excitement and horrible depression. There’s a whole questionnaire that might tell you if your kid is bipolar. You may want to look at it if you’ve noticed any of the following in yours:

  • Changing sleep habits
  • Lowered grades
  • Increased irritability
  • Periods of depression and anxiety
  • Thoughts of self-harm
  • Manic periods with unrealistic ideas

Better To Be Safe Than Sorry

When your child’s behavior changes, it’s easy to think you’re getting all Woody Allen about it. If you think something is wrong, then you’re probably right. “Parents know their child,” says Dr. Borenstein. “and if a parent has a concern about them, then they should look into it.”

Even if you’re worried you’re blowing it out of proportion, you should still get help. “There are 2 scenarios,” he says. “Either you go to a psychiatrist and find out your child is fine, or else you find out there is an issue and you do something about it before it’s too late.”

What Can You Do?

Be a collaborator. First, “you want to have a psychiatrist who has expertise in treating children,” says Dr. Borenstein. Then parents need to trust that the psychiatrist can help. For your part, encourage your kid to be engaged in the treatment, which often includes talk therapy, monitoring, and medication that will balance their emotions.

And it’s not just their mental health that needs to be watched. “Having a child with any condition is going to be a challenge for parents,” he says. “First and foremost, make sure the child is getting the treatment they need. Then, parents should have some support for themselves.” He recommends contacting NAMI, who support families that need help.

The Bottom Line

If you’re worried, get it checked out. “If you saw your child walking with a limp, you’d go see a doctor,” he says. “If you’re seeing a change in your child, don’t minimize it. Go see a doctor.” As with a physical illness, mental illness that goes untreated can get worse and create serious problems down the road. Fortunately, you’re on it, and your kid will thank you years down the road. Possibly with a Cure mixtape.

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