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Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder in Children

Bipolar Child Basics

By Kimberly Read

Updated June 30, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder in Children
Sharon Dominick/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Forget a lot of what you know about adult bipolar disorder symptoms - many of the symptoms of bipolar in children are quite different. Mood swings in children can be extremely fast, and various angry and irritable behaviors are very common. The depressive symptoms are more akin to adult depression symptoms, as you'll see in the list below.

The Bipolar Child by Demitri Papolos, MD, and Janice Papolos is an excellent resource for parents who have children with bipolar disorder. Below is an excerpt from their work (reprinted with permission), which lists those symptoms that Demitri and Janice found, in their research, were common to children who have bipolar disorder.

Very Common Symptoms of Childhood Bipolar Disorder

  • Separation anxiety
  • Rages & explosive temper tantrums (lasting up to several hours)
  • Marked irritability
  • Oppositional behavior
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Distractibility
  • Hyperactivity
  • Impulsivity
  • Restlessness/ fidgetiness
  • Silliness, goofiness, giddiness
  • Racing thoughts
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Grandiosity
  • Carbohydrate cravings
  • Risk-taking behaviors
  • Depressed mood
  • Lethargy
  • Low self-esteem
  • Difficulty getting up in the morning
  • Social anxiety
  • Oversensitivity to emotional or environmental triggers
Common Symptoms of Childhood Bipolar Disorder
  • Bed-wetting (especially in boys)
  • Night terrors
  • Rapid or pressured speech
  • Obsessional behavior
  • Excessive daydreaming
  • Compulsive behavior
  • Motor & vocal tics
  • Learning disabilities
  • Poor short-term memory
  • Lack of organization
  • Fascination with gore or morbid topics
  • Hypersexuality
  • Manipulative behavior
  • Bossiness
  • Lying
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Destruction of property
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations & delusions
Less Common Symptoms of Childhood Bipolar Disorder
  • Migraine headaches
  • Binging
  • Self-mutilating behaviors
  • Cruelty to animals
To understand the symptoms of bipolar disorder in children, let's look at the problems of a child named Randy. An endearing five-year-old boy with an engaging smile, he has a history of tempestuous behavior that has followed him since infancy. He is bright, articulate, a fast learner - and as unpredictable as a tornado. From the time he cut his first tooth, he began biting - often drawing blood. At one and a half years old, Randy was dismissed from pre-school for aggressive behavior. He consistently scores high marks for academics, but has a string of "needs improvement" comments in all areas of behavior. He is loving, cuddling, wanting to be held one minute, screaming and raging with veins bulging from his neck the next.

Randy's parents are exasperated. They have attended many a parenting class, read a plethora of books, and tried every means of discipline suggested by family, friends, teachers and doctors.

Some say, "Randy is just all boy. He will grow out of it." Others suggest, "Randy has attention deficit disorder. Ask your doctor for Ritalin." A few point their fingers at the parents: "You need to take a firm hand with Randy. A good spanking is what that boy needs."

Many whisper, "Can you believe that boy Randy? I would never allow a child of mine to behave like that."

A study conducted by the Papoloses indicated that more than 80% of children diagnosed with bipolar disorder come from families with a history of mood disorders and/or alcoholism on both sides of the family. Randy's mother has struggled with depression most of her life. His father has bipolar disorder. In other words, Randy is a prime candidate for a mood disorder, and eventually he was diagnosed with bipolar.

Related Video
How to Deal With and Overcome Bedwetting
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