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Challenges in Diagnosing Children's Bipolar Disorder

By Kimberly Read

Updated May 16, 2014

Diagnosing Bipolar in Children
Bruce Ayres Collection/The Image Bank/Getty Images
Diagnosing bipolar disorder in adults is difficult. Distinguishing between normal behaviors and those that may indicate a mental illness such as bipolar disorder in a kid is more challenging because:

  • There are a significant number of other conditions whose symptoms overlap with bipolar disorder, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder (CD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, depressive disorders and learning disabilities;

  • The span of time in a young life is insufficient to establish a course of illness (Papolos, 2006);

  • Many symptoms are different from those found in adults with bipolar disorder (see Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder in Children);

  • Episodes are much shorter than for adults, spanning only days or even hours;

  • Developmental factors are in full play – “a child's often nonstop motion, lack of impulse control, difficulty tolerating frustration, and vivid imagination are part of a typical, everyday picture” (Papolos, 2006).
With all these issues clouding the picture, how is a child diagnosed with bipolar disorder? What symptoms and behaviors would lead a doctor to diagnosis a kid with bipolar disorder? What are The Criteria for Diagnosing Childhood Onset Bipolar Disorder?

More on Diagnosing Children With Bipolar Disorder:

Emphasizing Irritability
Looking for Most Common Symptoms
Could My Child Have Bipolar Disorder?


Papolos, J. & Papolos, D.F. (2006, November). Why is it so difficult to diagnose bipolar disorder in children? The Bipolar Child Newsletter, 23.

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