8 Signs Your Child Might Have Bipolar Disorder

Last Updated: 17 Jun 2020

An evaluation by a child/adolescent psychiatrist is the first step to a bipolar diagnosis. Here are eight symptoms that could warrant a visit to a mental health professional.

bipolar in children

#1 Manic Episodes

Some signs your child may be experiencing mania, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP): Unrealistic highs in self-esteem, such as feelings of having special superhero powers; increases in energy and decreased need for sleep, or being able to go with little sleep for days without feeling tired; rapid thinking and talking; and repeated high risk-taking behavior, such as sexual promiscuity, reckless driving, or abusing alcohol and drugs.

#2 Depressive Episodes

The AACAP describes this abnormal state for children or teens as having low energy, fatigue, poor concentration, and decreased enjoyment in favorite activities; decreased appetite or major change in eating habits; complaints of physical illnesses, such as stomach aches and headaches; and thoughts of death or suicide.

#3 Anger and Rage

All children get angry periodically, but children and adolescents with bipolar disorder tend to feel anger at a very intense level. This can manifest into violence, possibly attacking others or destroying their toys. Because children with bipolar anger usually are not able to control their outbursts, these emotions turn into severe rage that can last for hours.

#4 Severe Fluctuations in Mood

Bipolar children are more likely to have rapid cycling, moving back and forth between a depressed mood and a manic mood over a shorter period of time or even within the same day. It’s common to see a pattern of severe fluctuations in mood, energy, and daily routines, which lead to difficulty in functioning in school, with friends, or at home, says Helena Verdeli, PhD, assistant professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University.

#5 Flights of Fancy

Although less common than symptoms of rage and anger, children and teens do experience elation, grandiosity, or mania, and this could be a key signal in an initial assessment, says bipolar research expert Eric Youngstrom, PhD. He asks parents if their child is being overly giddy and goofy at unexpected times, like bedtime and first thing in the morning, and whether “the elation is happening too often, too intensely, or lasting too long.”

#6 Family Connection

“Most of the kids have a family history of mood disorder or bipolarity,” according to child psychiatrist Dr. Rosalie Greenberg. The chances of developing bipolar disorder are increased if a child’s parents or siblings have the disorder. But the role of genetics is not absolute and a child from a family with a history of bipolar disorder may never develop the disorder.

#7 Changes at School

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, symptoms in teens point to school issues. They may experience a drop in grades, quit sports teams or other activities, be suspended from school or arrested for fighting or drug use, engage in risky sexual behavior, or talk about death or even suicide. Talk with your child’s teacher or guidance counselor to determine if they are seeing similar behaviors at school as what you’re seeing at home.

#8 Differences in Similar Illnesses

Mental health professionals may need to sift out bipolar disorder from other look-alike symptoms of illnesses. “For example, if a child with ADD has insomnia, they will be tired the next day; a child with bipolar [who didn’t sleep] won’t feel a need for sleep,” explains Benjamin Goldstein, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist at the Sunnybrook Research Institute in Toronto. Hypersexuality is another bipolar marker, as it is a symptom of mania but not characteristic of ADD.

Code: bphopekids

About the author
Tanya Hvilivitzky has spent almost 30 years in the communications field—a career that has included stints as an investigative journalist, magazine managing editor, corporate communications director, and researcher/writer. She has been with bp Magazine and esperanza Magazine since 2016, serving in roles such as interim editor and, currently, the features editor. She also writes for the bpBUZZ section of bphope.com, where she synthesizes complex information into a format that both inspires and informs. As an award-winning writer/editor, she received the Beyond Borders Media Award for her 2012 investigative exposé about human trafficking. Her work on this important topic also earned the Media Freedom Award “Honouring Canada’s Heroes” from the Joy Smith Foundation to Stop Human Trafficking.
  1. I have been bipolar since the age of 3, and hearing impaired, just like my paternal grandmother and other members of my family. I also rapid cycle, sometimes 40-50 times per day which I understand is extremely rare, but I have learned to live with the moods, I receive therapy, and I take medication, primarily Toprol for high blood pressure and off-label use, as well as Klonopin. I can remember cycling as a small child, from mania to depression, but in a milder form, often within 1/2 hour cycles or less. Luckily, my parents had me diagnosed at an early age, first with severe/profound hearing impairment and then bipolar disorder. I am thankful for that because I do not drink, use drugs, etc. Instead, I learned to read and talk on my own before age 3, and never had hearing aids until I was 4. I am lucky. others I know with bipolar disorder drink and have never coped well with their disorder. Early diagnosis and treatment are key. As a result, I managed to graduate from high school and a top University.

  2. When a parent doesn’t watch a child’s sugar intake it can cause all these behaviors. Caffeinated drinks can be like a roller coaster ride for the nervous system. Highly addictive, with big time withdrawal which can devastate a adult let alone a child.

    1. oh please, not true

  3. I’m raising my 3 grandchildren from my daughter (who is a drug addict bipolar). The youngest is about to turn 8 and we are having severe issues with acting out in school, anger issues and violence. I’m thinking that these may actually be signs of her having bipolar as well, but she is so young. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

  4. My daughter is 30 now and just been diagnosed with biopolaridad, I find very difficul to communicate with her and she finds is all my fault, I need to be able to reach her to be able to help, but I can’t find the way, help me please

  5. So my son is nearly 8 years old and he’s been diagnosed with ADHD/ODD/OCD. His psychiatrist is now thinking he may have bipolar disorder instead of the ODD/OCD. In nervous what this means for him. He’s so young, and every medication we’ve tried hasn’t helped. I’ve been doing research on kids stabilizers and it just causes me more concern with the side effects from them. We are at a loss and not sure how to help our son anymore.

    1. My husband has bipolar 1 and our daughter is 13. She has been dx’d with geralized anxiety, depression, social anxiety, etc, etc. We have been through many medical. All sides set her off at the first dose. I finally asked her psychiatrist about genetic testing for medication. It is a godsend. They are able to look at your child’s DNA and know which medications to stay away from and which ones are safe for him or her. They can then work with a compound pharmacist. I highly recommend it. Keep your chin up. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes it feels like a blacklight, but it is there.

    2. Moms,
      I’m going to put our experience out there in case even one person finds it helpful.
      If I can encourage one thing, it’s that you know your own child better than anyone. Trust your instincts. If the medicines aren’t working, ask yourself why. One suggestion on medications is to not change dosage on more than one at a time. Otherwise you don’t know which dosage increase is working, or not. Don’t jump from doctor to doctor, but don’t be afraid to find somebody else if they are not working with you and there is no improvement after giving it enough time. Also, see if you can isolate what seems to be the root cause of your child’s behavior. Is there a pattern? Are they overly sensitive? Do they have trouble regulating their emotions? Are they bright (not just school smart) but don’t like school? Take the time to figure it out because you are your child’s best advocate! Not all explosive behavior leads to a bipolar diagnosis.
      I was in a similar situation with my son when he was younger (7 yrs old). He was extremely sensitive and explosive, but could also be fairly happy. Since his father had bipolar, less experienced professionals immediately jumped to a bipolar diagnosis, but we just didn’t feel like it fit. Also, it is still rare for young children to have bipolar. As he got older and the stresses of school increased, he also started showing signs of depression and anxiety. We eventually agreed to try antidepressants, which helped a bit, but not significantly. After taking a hard look at our son’s behaviors, it was clear most of his explosions, depression and anxiety centered around school. He was very bright, but also extremely sensitive and exploded violently very easily. The older he got, the greater his difficulties, and the more we again wondered if it was bipolar. Based on all this, we eventually went to a doctor who specialized in evaluating gifted children. Long story short, our son was diagnosed as Twice Exceptional (2E), which basically means he has a higher IQ and also a learning disability. These kids are often bright enough that their “gifts” can cover for their disability. In our son’s case, being in a traditional learning environment was causing him extreme distress, crushing his spirit and devastating his self-esteem. He was hurt and angry – and unable to articulate what was going on, because he didn’t know anything different and he thought he was stupid. We also found out that most 2E kids have what’s called “overexcitabilities.” They ‘feel’ very intensely and it can look just like mental health issues. We felt like we finally had an accurate diagnosis. We also found out that it is not common, and not all professionals are aware of it.
      For our son, it’s pretty late in his education to heal all the wounds, but we are trying. We still use medications as we sort through all this, but much less. Due to his “Overexcitabilities,” he is going through DBT, which is teaching him skills to help manage his intense moods. Since DBT is also used to treat bipolar, I don’t feel like we’re doing anything harmful. I still keep a watchful eye on him and would be lying if bipolar doesn’t still cross my mind. I just wish we’d known more and questioned more when he was younger. I always felt like we were battling through it alone.
      Just to be clear – I’m not saying aggressive, volatile behaviors are NOT bipolar–I’m just saying that if you are really being brutally honest with yourselves about your child’s behaviors–trust your gut. I will not lie and tell you it’s easy -it’s not. It’s exhausting and unfortunately, you probably won’t find much support from the school. Educate yourselves and keep looking for the answer that fits the best.
      Good luck to all of you and remember your relationship with your child is the most important thing that will help you get through this!

      1. Hi Lisa
        This totally helped me. My daughter is 18 and just diagnosed with bipolar 2. I always knew my instincts were correct but was constantly told I was wrong by my ex husband. I now think he is also bipolar and tried so hard to ward off medication , doctors, and a true diagnosis for his daughter.

    3. Hi Sara. I am in the exact same boat with my 7 year old . We had just tried antidepressants on top of his ADHD meds and he went completely manic, i am trying to wean him off of them at the moment but it is very worrisome for me. Stabilizers are the next option but the side effects scare me . I would my interested in emailing aswell for support for each other

    4. Hey Sara I would love to touch base with you. Maybe we can email each other too

      1. Hey Moms,

        I would also like to touch base with you all, my 10 year boy is on ADHD meds Vyvanse and intuniv and he is doctors are thinking its bipolar now too. His biological father was diagnose bipolar but I do not no much of his history he is out of our lives as he was a very mean man. My lil boy is just not a happy boy any more and any change triggers him and he gets very anger and snaps at everything and says mean words and always wants to have the last word in. I am stuck as I do not want to medicate him for anything else as he takes his ADHD meds plus his asthmatic meds. hopeing to find some support

    5. Sara,

      I would be happy to discuss this offline if you want to send me your e-mail. I had a similar issue with my son who went onto have a substance use disorder as a result of undiagnosed/misdiagnosed BP. I would give anything to go back in time and treat it. You can always stop meds if he has bad side effects, but not treating it can have really bad outcomes. If he responds well, it could change everything for the better.

      1. My son also has been taking vyvanse but not really sure about if it’s working. I have questioned bipolar for years but no one will listen here in Australia about child bipolar. They just don’t want to know about it.

      2. Mia,
        Steph, may I discuss off line with you. My son needs help!!!

Load More Comments

Leave a Reply

Please do not use your full name, as it will be displayed. Your email address will not be published.