Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder in Teens

Being a teenager is hard. Ups and downs during this period of life are normal, and with the standard changing of our minds, bodies and lives, everything may feel and seem so much bigger than it actually is. Because all of this is a regular part of growing up, it may be difficult to differentiate just puberty from normal teenage struggles that are exacerbated by a more serious mental illness.

If your teen’s behavior seems to be getting more and more erratic, or if their mood swings from extreme bouts of mania or irritability to extreme sadness within a matter of days, it’s possible that they may be suffering from bipolar disorder.

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a chronic mood disorder that affects about 2.6% of American adults with symptoms generally starting to appear in the late teens and/or early adulthood. People with bipolar disorder fluctuate between manic episodes, periods of extreme elation, high-energy, irritability and activity, and depressive episodes, periods of intense sadness and depression.

While researchers still do not exactly know what causes bipolar disorder, they believe that a combination of genetics, brain structure and environmental factors play a role:

  1. Individuals with a family history of bipolar disorder are more likely to develop it themselves. However, keep in mind that the majority of people who have family members with bipolar disorder do not end up developing it.
  2. Brain scans are not used to diagnose bipolar disorder, but researchers have found differences in brain size and activity in individuals who have already been diagnosed with the mood disorder.
  3. Traumatic or stressful life events can trigger the onset of the first bipolar episode. Stress hormones and how young people handle stress can play a factor into whether or not the disease emerges.

Bipolar disorder can be difficult to detect as it can look like other mental health disorders such as depression and certain anxiety disorders. There is also a wide range of symptoms of depression and symptoms of mania that someone with bipolar disorder may experience.

One key difference from bipolar disorder in adults is that teenagers tend to be more irritable than elated during manic episodes whereas adults experience more elation.

Symptoms in Teens

Symptoms of a teenager experiencing a manic episode may include:

  • Short temper/irritable mood
  • Being talkative, speaking quickly and changing from topic to topic
  • An inability to focus
  • Being easily distracted
  • Heightened energy levels
  • Extreme, unpredictable and abnormal mood changes such as being overly happy or silly
  • Overly inflated self-esteem and grandiosity
  • Heightened sex drive
  • Uncharacteristically poor judgment
  • Taking part in high-risk and compulsive activities such as reckless driving, binge shopping, unprotected sex or alcohol and substance abuse

Symptoms of a teenager experiencing a depressive episode may include:

  • Feelings of worthlessness, emptiness, helplessness and/or guilt
  • Persisting feelings of sadness and despair
  • Low self-esteem
  • Sensitivity to failure and/or rejection
  • Feelings of anger, hostility and/or aggression
  • Loss of interest in activities they previously enjoyed
  • No interest in socializing and/or relationship troubles
  • A noticeable drop in energy
  • Difficulty concentrating and/or making choices
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Frequent complaints of physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches or bodily aches and pains
  • Threatening or attempting to run away from home
  • Suicidal thoughts and/or attempts

Next Steps

If you notice some of these symptoms in your teen and any of them are drastically affecting your child’s life, it may be time to consult a healthcare professional. Your family doctor will most likely conduct a physical exam to rule out any other illnesses that mimics the disorder. Then, you may be referred to a mental health professional or a psychiatrist to formally determine whether or not your child has bipolar disorder.

There are six different types of bipolar disorder diagnoses recognized in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition), each with different manic symptoms and depressive symptoms, as well as different treatment options: bipolar I disorder, bipolar II disorder, cyclothymic disorder (cyclothymia), substance/medication-induced bipolar and related disorder, bipolar and related disorder due to another medical condition and unspecified bipolar and related disorder. Once a diagnosis is determined, you and your teen can begin working with your psychiatrist to create an effective treatment plan.

How to Cope with Bipolar Disorder

Other than therapy and the mood-stabilizers or antidepressant medications that may be prescribed to your child for treatment, there are other ways you can help your teenager cope with bipolar disorder and live a happy, successful life.

  1. Listen to your teen. Make sure that your child feels loved and supported by listening to what they have to say. Create a safe, judgment-free space that allows them to open up. Take the time to talk with them and to truly attempt to understand what they’re going through. You will undoubtedly experience frustration, but do your best to express patience and kindness.
  2. Educate yourself. Read books and journal articles, and utilize whatever internet resources may be available to you. The more you know about bipolar disorder, the more you will understand what your child is experiencing. This will not only enable you to better help them, but it will also allow you to feel more in control of the situation.
  3. Attend family therapy. Your child will most likely be attending talk therapy on their own, but taking part in family therapy as well will not only show your teen solidarity, but it can also help the whole family better understand bipolar disorder, how to cope with it and how to best help the teen who has it.
  4. Develop a routine. Following a daily schedule as well as guiding your child to eat well and sleep right can all help to manage bipolar disorder. This also includes sticking to appointments with your teen’s healthcare provider as much as possible.
  5. Work with your teen’s school. Keep all of the adults in your teen’s life in the loop so that they can better understand why your child may be acting in a particular way. Teachers, school administration and school counselors may also have valuable insight or additional ways to assist.
  6. Reach out for support. Helping your child navigate a mental health disorder during their teens is challenging. If you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed yourself, try reaching out to and forming relationships with other parents who have teens with bipolar disorder. Your teen’s healthcare provider may also be able to point you to support groups for caregivers of people with bipolar disorder.
  7. Take all signs of depression, mania and suicide very seriously. Teens with bipolar disorder are at a higher risk for suicide. Work with your child’s healthcare provider and have an emergency plan in place for if and when your child expresses thoughts of death. Seek help immediately by calling 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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