It’s hard enough to help a child through the normal ups and downs of adolescence. If your child also has bipolar disorder, it can be even more overwhelming—but the first step is to figure out whether your child has bipolar disorder in the first place.
Bipolar disorder in children
Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition where a person experiences episodes of high and low moods, called mania and depression. When someone is manic, they might have lots of energy, feel unstoppable, and act impulsively. When they’re depressed, they might feel worthless or empty, have trouble getting out of bed, and have thoughts about death or suicide.
In adults, episodes of mania and depression usually last for several weeks or even months. In between, the person will feel relatively “normal.”
With children, it’s a bit different. Children with bipolar disorder often cycle between mania and depression more rapidly—sometimes several times within a single day. Children also commonly experience mixed episodes: times when they experience symptoms of mania and depression at the same time.
Bipolar disorder in children also commonly gets confused with other conditions, such as conduct disorder, anxiety, and depression. But the most common mix-up is between bipolar disorder and ADHD. (It’s also possible for a child to have more than one of these conditions at the same time.)
Bipolar or ADHD?
Bipolar disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) share some overlapping symptoms:
- Getting distracted easily.
- Having a short attention span.
- Feeling irritable.
- Having trouble sitting still.
- Speaking so quickly it’s hard to follow what they’re saying.
One of the keys to distinguishing between the two is to look for symptoms that are common only in bipolar disorder and not in ADHD:
- Feeling extremely excited or happy.
- Racing thoughts.
- Self-harm or thoughts of suicide.
- Psychotic symptoms, like seeing or hearing things that aren’t there.
- Only sleeping a few hours a night, and not feeling tired the next day. (Kids without bipolar disorder might have trouble sleeping, but they’ll usually at least try to sleep more. And they’ll feel tired the next day.)
- Grandiosity: acting as though the rules don’t apply to them, or acting like an authority figure to other children or even teachers.
- Hypersexuality: being more interested in sex than most children their age—and as a way of seeking pleasure, not just out of curiosity.
- Intense goal-oriented activity: drawing intricate pictures, writing long stories, building complicated structures with toys.
Getting a diagnosis
You can look for warning signs of bipolar disorder in your child, but you can’t diagnose them yourself. If you think your child may have bipolar disorder, it’s important to get them to a doctor or a counselor who can evaluate them. The person doing the evaluation will talk to both you and the child—parents and children usually give very different descriptions of the symptoms, and both of those descriptions are helpful. Whoever diagnoses your child will also be able to help you find treatment options.
You might find it helpful to take our online bipolar test on behalf of your child, or to have your child take it themselves. Only a mental health professional can diagnose bipolar disorder, but it can be a good starting point for talking to your child about what they’re experiencing. You can also print off the results and take them with you when you do speak to a professional.
- National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). (2015). Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens. Retrieved from
- Singh, T. (2008). Pediatric Bipolar Disorder: Diagnostic Challenges in Identifying Symptoms and Course of Illness. Psychiatry, 5(6), pp. 34-42. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2695748/