Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes extreme shifts in mood, behavior, attention, and energy level. These shifts can result in a high, referred to as a manic episode, or a low, known as a depressive episode. Symptoms of bipolar disorder typically emerge in early adulthood, around the age of 25, but symptoms can also develop in childhood or the teenage years.1
Because teens experience changes in all areas of life, including their brains and bodies, it can be difficult to know whether changes in mood are a typical rite of passage or a sign of something more concerning. If either parent has experienced mental illness, or if a teen as has experienced trauma or extreme stress in their life, then they may be at higher risk for a mood disorder. The following are signs of mood episodes that might indicate a presence of bipolar disorder:2
Symptoms of Manic Episode
· elevated or irritable mood
· increase in energy
· acting silly in an unusual way
· quick to become angry or irritable
· risky behaviors such as substance use or sexual promiscuity
· trouble concentrating
· needing less sleep
· talking quickly and changing topics frequently
· grandiose sense of self-esteem
Symptoms of Depressive Episode
· depressed or irritable mood
· decreased pleasure in favorite activities
· changes in eating
· changes in sleep
· lack of energy
· complaints of headache or stomachache
· thinking about of death or suicide
People often associate depression with sadness and mania with elevated mood. Sometimes, however, children and teens will exhibit an irritable mood when they are depressed or manic.3 It’s important to talk to your child’s pediatrician or another mental health professional if you have any concerns. Symptoms may be related to other conditions, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, major depression, substance use, or other physical ailments.
Because symptoms can be very disruptive to home life, school life, and other relationships, early treatment is key to helping your teen find a stable, healthy routine for managing symptoms. Early treatment can also lower the risk for substance use or suicidal behaviors among people with the disorder.
Treatment for teens with bipolar disorder typically involves a combination of medication and therapy.
Medication may include a combination of drugs, which can include antidepressants, mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, and/or anti-anxiety medication. Be patient, as it may take several tries before your teen finds the right medication with the fewest side effects. Because there is increased risk of suicidal thoughts for young people who take antidepressants, encourage your teen to share with you, their doctor, or their school counselor if they experience this thinking.4
Therapy can be an important part of treatment for bipolar disorder. To be a successful adult, your teen will have to learn how to cope with symptoms, manage their medication, develop healthy habits, and navigate risks of substance abuse and other behaviors. Therapy can also help a teen learn to challenge negative thinking, encourage higher self-esteem, and also simply provide a safe place for them to feel heard and voice their concerns.
School support can be vital for a successful transition into adulthood. Recruit school counselors for added support, and consult with them about whether an Individualized Education Program might be best for your teen.5 If your teen is in college, encourage them to connect with school mental health resources and the office of disability services for added support.
Crisis support may be needed if your child is experiencing an extreme high or low. You can call 911, help them to an emergency room, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or their TTY number at 1-800-799-4TTY (4889).
How can I support my teen?
Parent support and feedback can help professionals assess the effectiveness of medication and therapy interventions. Help your child keep track of their moods and symptoms they will need to report at their next appointment. Encourage them to use their own creativity and self-knowledge to generate strategies for managing symptoms effectively. Also, don’t forget to take care of yourself. Peer support groups, individual counseling, and family counseling can be useful for parents of teens with mental illness. The less anxious you are, the more your child will feel empowered to take responsibility for their mental and physical health.
Bipolar disorder is treatable and manageable. What steps can you take today to support your teen on their journey to good mental health?