Bipolar disorder can be misunderstood, especially for kids and teens. Teens often have swings in their moods and can feel “up and down.” When are these emotional rollercoasters indicative of normal teenage behavior versus bipolar disorder? This can be tricky and difficult to determine. Some of the things that we can look for are the intensity and duration of these mood swings. We also have to consider that during the formative years and during developmental stages, our kids are going through some stressful life changes and their body chemistries are changing. Sometimes, minor symptoms of bipolar disorder may have been present when they were small children or somewhat dormant until the stress of these changes brought them forward.
Most mental health issues can be dormant until triggered by stressful situations. They may also have been somewhat manageable, which may be why bipolar tendencies may be overlooked in children. Teens are under a lot of pressure as they grow up. They start making choices about what they want to do with their lives, they begin gaining more independence, and they are dealing with social pressures and dating, all while developing physically. When all of this pressure is occurring, dormant psychiatric issues—like bipolar disorder—may come to the surface.
There is a strong genetic component to bipolar disorder. If we have a history of bipolar disorder in our families and we start to see some of the same patterns of behavior in our children, then they may have the disorder as well. Always seek the advice and guidance of a professional to accurately diagnose a disorder and find the best treatment options. Some characteristics of bipolar disorder can appear in other mental health disorders. We always want to be open-minded and consult with our physicians and other professionals. We want to be sure to rule out any other issues that can share similar traits of bipolar disorder, such as thyroid issues, drug or alcohol use, or unintended side effects of medications.
Inconsistent Behavioral Patterns and Moods
While most teens will go through mood swings and occasional outbursts, one of the things to look for is the consistency of their behavior. Bipolar disorder means that a person goes through episodes being up and down. What we might see are weeks of a teenager partying, staying up all night, having outbursts, and being incredibly energetic, followed by episodes where they are isolating themselves, sleeping often, and acting depressed. Look for these types of extremes and when things seem to be “consistently inconsistent.” Bipolar symptoms generally occur in a cyclic fashion. If your teenager seems like a different person from one week to the next in terms of overall mood and energy levels, there may be something going wrong.
Looking for Extremes
Every teenager is going to have some sort of outburst or display of anger. Teens are learning how to manage their emotions and resolve conflicts. We have to give our kids some leeway as they learn to deal with these issues. We want to be on the lookout for any extreme behaviors. For signs of mania (the “up” cycle of bipolar disorder), we should look out for things like:
- Fits of rage that last for hours
- Breaking objects or tearing down doors
- Shouting at the top of their lungs for long periods of time
- Inability to take a break a conversation and jumping from one topic to the next
- Engaging in risky sexual behavior or substance use
- Not able to sleep, yet not feeling tired
For signs of depression (the “down” cycle of bipolar disorder), we may see things like:
- Suicidal ideations
- Low levels of energy and feeling extremely tired
- Sleeping a lot or not getting enough sleep
- Feeling sad, guilty, and worthless
- No interest in activities that they usually enjoy
If your teenager is going through these extreme up and down cycles, you want to get them help right away. You should consult with your physician or a psychiatrist to get to the root of the problem. When left untreated, these symptoms can get worse over time. Your child may also develop negative coping skills, like turning to drugs or alcohol. They may engage in risky behaviors that can have long-term consequences, such as legal issues or unwanted pregnancies. It is important to get treatment as soon as possible. Remember to be open and understanding when talking with your child. You want to let them know that you are there for them and want to help them with their struggles.
For more about bipolar disorder in teens, listen to the “Beyond Risk and Back” podcast titled “Straight Talk Bi-Polar.”
Bipolar disorder may be difficult for us to understand, as parents. We may look at our teenager’s behavior and think, “they’re just being a typical teenager! All kids have mood swings!” We want to look out for extremes. Extremes may be difficult to define. We often know extreme behavior when we see it. Extremes in behaviors can consist of breaking windows when angry or staying up all night for days without being tired. It could also consist of behaviors like sleeping in for nearly the entire day and still being tired or talking about death excessively. Bipolar disorder is characterized as a cycle of these extreme ups and downs. Look for these extreme mood shifts occurring in cycles. When we know our kids, we can usually understand that they may get angry at times, but do not hold onto the anger for hours or days. They may feel sad, but do not stay in bed for days afterward. When we start to see changes that are extreme, we need to seek guidance and support from professionals. For more information to help your child, call Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center at (303) 443-3343.