A teenager struggling with bipolar disorder holding a mirror in front of her that depicts polar opposite emotions of joy and despair..

Artwork by Nitya Menon

A teenager struggling with bipolar disorder holding a mirror in front of her that depicts polar opposite emotions of joy and despair..

Early signs of bipolar disorder in teens

Medically reviewed by

Written by Kriti Dugar

Being a parent is not easy and often may seem the most formidable challenge in your life! So if you have been up all day -- looking after the house, your job, as well as your teenager, then kudos to you! You are doing a great job!

In this daily grind, where you have to attend to a million tasks every day, you might be worried about your teenager who has been having mood swings. However, these mood swings may be the onset of bipolar disorder

If you or your loved ones suffer from bipolar disorder, know that you are not alone. 

Bipolar disorder in teens

Bipolar disorder is a chronic mental health disorder that could result in drastic changes in mood and energy levels.

It results in extreme mood swings or emotional states called manic (emotional highs) and episodes of depression (emotional lows). Some people might experience mania and not depression.

Causes of bipolar disorder in teenagers

Years of research have not led to any answer about the exact cause of the bipolar disorder. However, scientists have observed it does tend to run in the families as per data findings. However, they are yet to identify the gene that causes the inheritance. There is no way to prevent bipolar disorders. However, with therapy and lifestyle changes, these symptoms can be managed. 

There is no specific age for the onset of bipolar disorder. It commonly develops in the late teens or early adult years. However, the prevalence of the disorder in men and women is approximately the same. A teenager is usually going through an important shift in his/her life due to puberty and hormonal shifts. As a result, mental health professionals will take great care to monitor the teen to ensure that they are not mistaking typical mood changes for signs of bipolar disorder.

The mental health provider will understand the teenager’s health history and symptoms and a mental health evaluation before making a diagnosis.

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Early symptoms of Bipolar Disorder

The mood swings in teenagers typically range from depression to mania. Each episode might last for a week or two but usually is subjective by nature. 

A teenager with mania may show the following signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder : 

  • Often taking part in high-risk or impulsive activities such as reckless driving, unprotected sex, or substance abuse
  • Extremely talkative, such as speaking quickly or changing topics a lot. They are easily distracted because of heightened energy levels. 
  • Severe, unpredictable mood changes, such as being abnormally happy or being short-tempered/irritable, or having unusual outbursts
  • Decreased need to rest or sleep because they don’t feel tired. 
  • Feeling extremely important about themselves or showcasing a grandiose personality. 

During a depressive episode, bipolar disorder symptoms to look out for include:

  • Feelings of violent emotions like anger, hostility, or aggression
  • Feeling very sad, helpless, or guilty, is often expressed through crying. 
  • Isolating themselves because of low self-esteem
  • Complaining about bodily pains, such as headaches or stomach aches
  • Sensitivity to failure and rejection
  • Anxiety is making choices 
  • Changes in sleeping and eating habits
  • Low energy and interest in all activities 
  • Trouble in relationships
  • Romanticizing death or feeling like they want to die can also be part of bipolar symptoms.

Complications of bipolar Disorder in a teenager

Teenagers with bipolar disorder show emotional highs and lows, resulting in specific signs and symptoms. Hence such children might be at risk for other problems which may include:

  • Substance abuse
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Behavior and conduct problems
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Anxiety disorder

Treatment for Bipolar Disorder in teenagers

The treatment will depend on your teenager’s age, the severity of symptoms, and general health. 

Healthcare providers usually prescribe a combination of therapy and at-home lifestyle changes.

Therapeutic interventions for bipolar disorder

Therapeutic interventions are a key part of treating bipolar disorder. It involves the use of psychological methods to help a person change one’s behavior and overcome problems in desired ways in an individual or group setting. 

Some psychotherapies that may be helpful include: 

  1. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT): This form of therapy is used to identify negative or toxic thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and behaviors. They are then replaced with healthy and positive thought, emotional and behavior patterns. One may also learn effective strategies to manage stress and cope with upsetting situations.
  2. Interpersonal and social rhythm therapy: It is used to help one create a daily routine for sleep, diet, and exercise which needs to be followed inconsistency. Establishing daily rhythms and routines for your teenager can be highly beneficial for both them and their parents.  
  3. Family-focused therapy: This type of therapy uses family support and communication. Parents can become pillars of support to the teenagers to stick with their treatment plan and manage warning signs of mood swings.
  4. Psychoeducation: This is an extremely important part of therapy. It is used to teach the teenager and his/her loved ones/family more about bipolar disorder to help one make better decisions about care and treatment. 

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Lifestyle Changes 

One can create lifestyle changes that can help stop cycles of behavior that worsen bipolar disorder. Here are some steps to take:

  1. Avoid substance use: One of the biggest concerns with bipolar disorder is using harmful or addictive substances. This risk is especially high in teenagers who their peers might influence
  2. Healthy relationships: Teenagers often push their families away. However, it is important to keep people who are a positive influence close to themselves. Friends and family members are pillars of support to help watch for warning signs of mood shifts.
  3. Create a healthy routine: Teenagers should have a routine for sleeping, eating, and physical activity, which can help balance their moods. This is beneficial in the long run and has a positive effect on managing the symptoms. 
  4. Keep a mood chart: Teenagers or their parents could record daily moods, treatments, sleep, activities, and feelings that may help identify triggers, effective treatment options, and when treatment needs to be adjusted.

The way ahead :

Living with Bipolar Disorder as a parent can be challenging. However, the teenager’s symptoms will get better. In this challenging journey, you need to be as supportive and patient as possible. Remember to keep all appointments with your medical health professional, actively participate in therapy and reach out for support anytime you may need it. If you feel overwhelmed or burnt out, please talk to your teenager’s mental health professional or seek a support group for caregivers of people with bipolar disorder.

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