Bipolar disorder in teens – information for parents
Bipolar disorder is a condition that affects the brain’s ability to regulate moods. It can cause a teenager to experience intense mood swings, ranging from depressive episodes to extreme elation.
As many teenagers experience ups and downs or seem irritable as they go through adolescence, it can be difficult to determine whether your teenager is experiencing more than a usual level of angst, and whether you need to take steps to get them support.
Below, we have outlined the characteristics of bipolar disorder to help parents who may be worried or concerned. We have also outlined the steps you can take in order to receive a diagnosis, and listed the treatment options that are available if and when needed.
Bipolar I and bipolar II
Bipolar disorder typically starts when someone is in their late teens or early adulthood. There are two forms of bipolar disorder – bipolar I and bipolar II. The main difference between the two is the severity of the manic episodes.
- Bipolar I – alternating between extreme depression and mania
- Bipolar II – alternating between depression and a milder form of elation called hypomania
A person with bipolar disorder I will have a mania that is more severe.
What do depressive episodes look like?
A teenager with bipolar disorder is likely to experience depressive episodes before they have a manic or hypomanic episode. When they do, you will typically see the following signs:
- Low mood and intense sadness
- Lack of energy
- Lack of interest in activities they usually enjoy
- Changes in their appetite
- Changes in their sleeping pattern
- Feeling worthless, hopeless or guilty
- Lower levels of concentration
- Suicidal thoughts
What are mania and hypomania?
Manic episodes typically last for at least seven days. During this time, you may see the following signs:
- Exaggerated optimism
- Less need for sleep
- Difficulty concentrating
- Noticeable increase in energy
- Risky or reckless behaviour
- Violent and aggressive possibilities
Symptoms of hypomania can be similar to mania, but they will be less extreme. Typically, a person will experience the following:
- Increased energy
- Less need for sleep
During a manic or hypomanic episode, a teenager may also become irritated with those around them.
Diagnosis and treatment
With bipolar disorder, it is important to receive proper treatment as the condition can impact a person’s day-to-day functioning as well as their future years.
Diagnosing bipolar disorder can be a complex process and needs careful, extended and multiple observations. An expert diagnostician will be needed to carefully review the symptoms and determine the first steps of treatment needed. A visit to your local GP can provide you with an initial assessment and a referral to a specialist if needed.
Priory also has expert child and adolescent psychiatrists who are able to provide an initial thorough assessment and ongoing monitoring. Following diagnosis, we can offer education about bipolar to the young person and their family, which can be through family therapy. Family therapy will help everyone’s strengths come to the fore to assist the young person so that they can recover and remain well. We can also offer individual therapy to teach the young person skills to manage their mood changes and prevent thinking errors that can exacerbate mood changes; this may be in the form of CBT.
If necessary we can also offer medication prescribed by specialist child and adolescent psychiatrists who will also help monitor the young persons’ medication, mental health and risks.
Supporting a teenager with bipolar disorder
Life can change a lot during adolescence, from starting college or work to making new friendships and possible romances. When supporting a teenager with bipolar disorder, it is important to try and find the right balance, where you are supportive without showing extreme cautiousness, which could potentially cause your teenager to become avoidant or isolative.
If they are struggling to talk about how they are feeling, suggest forming a communication system that involves less talking but allows you to keep an eye on them. You may want to use a traffic light system for communicating. Sit down with your child when they are calm and say to them: “If you say or text you are the colour ‘red’, what will that mean?” The young person may say: “’Red’ means I am struggling.” You can then ask how the child would like them to react if they are in a ‘red’ frame of mind. The child may say they do not want to be asked lots of questions but neither do they want to be left alone, and they would like to watch a film or walk the dog with you until they feel they are ‘amber. Parents can do the same if the child describes their mood as ‘amber’ (less high risk than ‘red’) and ‘green’ (low risk), and then there will be a plan in place for communication about risks that makes everyone feel safer.
Also remind your child that you love them unconditionally and let them know that they can contact a supportive charity such as ChildLine or the Samaritans anonymously by telephone or via a web chat if they need a confidential discussion.
When your teenager has bipolar disorder, it is also important to connect with others who are going through a similar experience. Finding support for both your teenager and yourself would be recommended to help you both learn to cope with the condition. Bipolar UK and Mind are both charities that are able to provide you with peer support.