The adolescent years can be full of ups and downs. Your son or daughter might be over the moon with happiness because they scored a date with their latest crush… and an hour later, an argument with a friend can have them down in the dumps and moping around. When mood swings are severe and not circumstantial (such as feeling sad or angry due to a specific situation), you might worry that your teen has bipolar disorder. This is a serious mental illness that requires professional treatment. Take a look at this list of bipolar disorder symptoms, and if you are concerned, make an appointment with your child’s doctor.
1. Periods of Mania
The way that bipolar disorder presents itself is usually with alternating periods of mania and depression. Manic episodes are very intense. Not only will your teen notice them, but it’s very likely that you and others will notice them, too.
These episodes will often include periods of high energy and activity. Your teen might not be able to sit still. He or she might have insomnia, but won’t seem tired after sleeping very little. They might talk very quickly and jump from topic to topic. You might notice fits of laughter, particularly at inappropriate times, and your teen might be very silly in a way that is not age-appropriate.
While those are common bipolar disorder symptoms, they’re likely to be more annoying to you and others than to be dangerous to your teen. There are, however, some bipolar disorder symptoms that are more troubling: Your manic teen might become easily angered and might even become aggressive or violent. He or she might have a higher-than-usual sex drive, which can result in unprotected sex. They might also be prone to making impulsive decisions and might take risks like driving unsafely or getting caught up in illegal activities in the heat of the moment. They might also have delusions or hallucinations.
2. Periods of Depression
What makes bipolar disorder more than simple mania is that depressive episodes are interspersed between the manic episodes. Again, this goes beyond simply feeling sad over a romantic breakup, a bad grade, or other potentially upsetting events.
A teen dealing with a depressive episode might move very slowly. He or she might need an excessive amount of sleep (though sometimes depression can cause insomnia, as well). Your teen might be sad or irritable and he or she might lose interest in activities and friends. You might notice that your child’s grades are slipping and you may be frustrated to find that he or she does not seem to care.
In addition, your depressive teen might have a high level of anxiety about things that do not warrant a highly anxious response. It’s also possible that your child might have suicidal thoughts and might even have a plan to commit suicide.
3. Rapid Cycling Between Depression and Mania
Adults with bipolar disorder might go on for several months in one phase, and then switch to the other. This is also possible in teens, but many younger people will cycle more rapidly. This means that your teen might be depressive for just days or even hours before switching back to a manic episode and then back again. Some people with bipolar disorder will also have periods when they are not in a manic or a depressive episode, but others will go between the two extremes with little to no break in between.
Remember that when symptoms are mild, it can be hard to differentiate bipolar disorder from normal teenage moodiness. Watch for patterns and the severity of the bipolar disorder symptoms. A teen going from elation to overwhelming depression and then back again, especially if these mood swings are without a circumstantial trigger, could be exhibiting signs of bipolar disorder.
Sometimes, teens with bipolar disorder will realize that there’s a problem and will try to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. A teen struggling with substance use, abuse, or addiction could be trying to lessen the bipolar disorder symptoms, depression, mania, or a host of other mental illnesses.
Of course, most teens will experiment with substances at some point. Finding out that your teenager had a beer at a party or tried marijuana with a friend doesn’t mean that your child has a mental illness. An ongoing problem with substances, however, is something that warrants a closer look. Make an appointment with your child’s doctor to find out what’s going on.
What to Do If You Notice Bipolar Disorder Symptoms
If you notice your teen displaying the bipolar disorder symptoms mentioned above, the best place to start to seek help is with a comprehensive evaluation. See your child’s primary care doctor, who can refer you to the proper mental health practitioner. This doctor or therapist will spend time with your teen to determine whether there is a mental health issue and, if so, which one (or which ones) it is.
If it does turn out that your teen has bipolar disorder, you will likely be referred to a psychiatrist or a bipolar specialist. These professionals will be able to try different medications to find the combination that is right for your child. Because bipolar disorder involves both manic and depressive episodes, it’s important to find the medications that will work for your teen’s unique set of circumstances and how the illness is presenting.
In addition to medication, it’s very likely that your teen will attend psychotherapy sessions to help him or her cope with the diagnosis, the medications, and the lifestyle changes that need to take place. Also, if your teen has developed a substance abuse addiction, this will be addressed and treated, as well.
It can be a challenge to parent a teen with bipolar disorder. As a parent, you can better support your child if you are also watching out for your own need for support. Don’t be afraid to seek psychological counseling or a support group for parents of teens with mental health disorders. Also, keep in close contact with your teenager’s doctors so you know how to best help him or her to take medications properly and so you can encourage your teen to use the techniques learned about during therapy sessions to overcome mania and depression.