Signs, Symptoms, & Causes of Bipolar Disorder

The first step to getting help is recognizing the problem. If you’re concerned your child or teenager may be suffering from bipolar disorder, learn more about the signs and symptoms to watch for.

Understanding Bipolar Disorder

Learn about bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness that is marked by dramatic mood swings that cause those suffering from the disorder to experience extreme emotional highs and extreme emotional lows. These intense changes in mood can have a severe impact on a person’s ability to function appropriately on a daily basis. The effects of the disorder will not only impact that person’s life, but will impact the lives around him or her as well.

When children or adolescents have bipolar disorder, the illness will present itself differently than it does in adults. Adults suffering from bipolar disorder will typically display pattern-like mood swings, while children and adolescents do not always have such recognizable patterns of emotional highs and lows. Due to this fact, people under the age of 18 were historically not given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. However, as research continued, professionals in the field were able to classify specific symptoms that children with bipolar disorder may display, which allows the illness to stand out from other mental health disorder diagnoses that were traditionally given to children and adolescents. These advancements have allowed children and adolescents suffering from bipolar disorder to get the appropriate treatment that they need in order to overcome their severe symptoms.


Bipolar disorder statistics

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the estimated lifetime prevalence of bipolar disorder is said to be between 0%-3% in children and adolescents. However, as a result of the boundaries of the diagnosis still being under debate amongst professionals in the field, the true prevalence is not well established.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for bipolar disorder in children and teens

There is not any one specific factor that is said to cause the development of bipolar disorder, but rather it is believed that there are a combination of factors working together that lead to its onset. These factors are said to include:

Genetic: Bipolar disorder is believed to have a strong genetic component as it is known to run in families. It is estimated that when children have one parent who has bipolar disorder, they have a 15%-25% chance of developing the illness as well. It has also been noted that these children will typically begin experiencing symptoms of the disorder approximately ten years younger than their parents did.

Physical: Chemical imbalances in the brain are said to be one of the most prominent reasons why individuals develop bipolar disorder. More specifically, the dysfunction of neurotransmitters, which hold the responsibility of sending messages throughout the various areas of the brain, is said to lead to the onset of bipolar disorder symptoms.

Environmental: Although it is somewhat controversial and continues to be debated amongst researchers, there are some professionals who believe that certain environmental circumstances can cause an individual to develop bipolar disorder without the presence of genetic influences. Some believe, for example, that experiencing a severe trauma or growing up in a chaotic environment can lead a person to develop bipolar disorder. However, it is more commonly accepted that genetic or physical traits must be present and that certain environmental factors will simply exacerbate the symptoms.

Risk Factors:

  • Having a blood-relative, such as a biological parent or sibling, who suffers from bipolar disorder
  • Family history of other mental illnesses
  • Significant substance abuse
  • Experiencing severe trauma
  • Going through major life changes and stressors

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder in children and teens

The signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder will present differently from child to child. The symptoms will also greatly vary depending on what emotional state the child is experiencing, whether he or she is in a manic state, a depressive state, or a mixed state. The following are some examples of different symptoms that children and adolescents who are suffering from bipolar disorder may exhibit:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Acting out aggressively
  • Acting out impulsively
  • Acting out sexually
  • Explosive and/or violent temper tantrums
  • Oppositional and defiant behaviors
  • Restlessness
  • Rapid speech
  • Hoarding
  • Manipulative behaviors
  • Self-harm

Physical symptoms:

  • High arousal states
  • Bedwetting
  • Teeth grinding
  • Motor or vocal tics
  • Drastic fluctuations in bodily temperature
  • Hypersomnia or insomnia
  • Heightened startle response

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Poor working memory
  • Difficulty concentrating / becoming easily distracted
  • Having hallucinations or delusions
  • Racing thoughts
  • Having night terrors

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Low self-esteem or inflated self-esteem
  • Elated feelings
  • Grandiose feelings
  • Prolonged periods of emotional excitability
  • Excessive irritability
  • Increased levels of anxiety, including separation anxiety
  • Becoming easily humiliated or shamed
  • Suicidal ideation


Effects of bipolar disorder in children and teens

Due to the fact that bipolar disorder is a chronic illness, its symptoms will continue to affect those suffering from it throughout their lifetime. While there is presently no cure for bipolar disorder, people can find relief from their symptoms through proper treatment, including participating in therapy and implementing the use of psychotropic medications. If left untreated, however, the symptoms that children and adolescents experience will most likely continue to worsen as they grow into adulthood. Some long-term effects of untreated bipolar disorder can include:

  • Academic failure
  • Having difficulty or being unable to establish and maintain a career
  • Having difficulty or being unable to maintain healthy, lasting relationships
  • Chronic self-injury
  • Substance abuse
  • Criminal involvement / incarceration
  • Suicide

Co-Occurring Disorders

Bipolar disorder and co-occurring disorders

Many children and adolescents who are suffering from bipolar disorder are believed to suffer from other disorders as well. However, it is debated whether or not giving children multiple diagnoses is appropriate because some of the symptoms of bipolar disorder can mirror the symptoms of these other illnesses.

Some examples of disorders that are believed to co-exist with bipolar disorder in children and adolescents include the following:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Conduct disorder (CD)
  • Eating disorders
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  • Panic disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Substance abuse disorders