The Definitive Guide to Bipolar Disorder in Children

can children be bipolar?

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Can children have Bipolar Disorder? Ever since the days of Hippocrates, frustrated parents have been asking variations of that question. The fact is, Bipolar Disorder in children is quite rare.

Bipolar Disorder has been called many things over the years.

It probably started with the word “Melancholy,” which derives itself from Ancient Greek. Back then, the term was used to describe mood shifts and depression and related mental disorders.

In the 19th century, the French called it “La Folie Circulaire,” which translates to “circular insanity.”

In the 20th century we called it “Manic-Depressive Disorder.” Over years the term morphed into “Bipolar Disorder” Types 1 and 2, along with “Cyclothymia,” which is its long term, low-grade cousin.

Like the Devil, it has gone by many names.

It’s not a good idea to apply such labels to children, but inexperienced therapists and even medical doctors do it all the time.

The truth is Bipolar Disorder is far more likely to develop in adulthood, and there’s way more to it than mood swings and foul tempers.

It is serious. It is debilitating. And it is often misdiagnosed.

Children don’t have as firm a grasp on their emotions as do their adult counterparts, and that’s one of several reasons why so many children present as emotionally unstable.

Consider a typical two-year-old. They are giggling one minute, sobbing hysterically the next. But the mood swings you see in a two-year-old are usually normal and perhaps even necessary for proper development.

But what if they’re still struggling with these issues when they are 7? Or 10? Or 14? Is that the same thing?

Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder

In 2013, The American Psychiatric Association (APA) revised its mental health Bible and added several “new” disorders, some fraught with controversy. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is what clinicians use to assess and diagnose clients with mental health, developmental, and substance abuse disorders.

Bipolar Disorder is in there, a serious diagnosis usually reserved for adults.

This doesn’t mean that kids don’t present with behaviors associated with Bipolar Disorder in children. However, it should mean that clinicians use a diagnose that is more appropriate for kids.

Enter Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder.

bipolar disorder in children

If there is such a thing as a “hot” new diagnosis in mental health, it is Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD). While classified (incorrectly, I believe) as a “Depressive Disorder,” DMDD is basically Bipolar Disorder in children.

While nobody likes to place labels on kids, the emergence of DMDD as a recognized disorder allows clinicians to provide appropriate treatment for kids who have repeated tantrums, verbal and/or physical aggression, and a persistent angry or irritable mood.

This is not Bipolar Disorder. It may look like Bipolar Disorder, but there are key differences that separate the two.

How DMDD is different from Bipolar Disorder?

Several key features distinguish DMDD from Bipolar Disorder in children. Bipolar can be a lifelong affliction and is episodic in nature. DMDD is persistent but does not manifest with severe mania (i.e., incredible energy, sleeplessness).

Bipolar often leads to psychosis (delusions, hallucinations); DMDD does not. Grandiose thinking and elevated mood are typical with Bipolar; these symptoms are not present with DMDD. Severe tantrums are a feature of DMDD; this feature is absent from Bipolar Disorder in children.

In reality, Bipolar is rare, and almost never afflicts people under 18 years of age. These two disorders are similar, but only on a superficial level.

Is Bipolar Disorder in Children a Thing?

The short answer to this question is no. The long answer to the question involves a more thorough examination of Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder. If you suspect that your child suffers from DMDD, enlist the services of a licensed clinician who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of children and adolescents.

Your regular primary care physician is often not qualified to do this. You need to see a specialist.

Anyone can Google the diagnostic criteria for any known mental illness, but it takes a trained clinician to confirm the existence of an actual disorder. Humans are not just a collection of symptoms.

Children are not adults. This is especially true when it comes to mental health diagnoses. Children are still navigating various developmental stages and learning how to regulate their moods and emotions in ways that are appropriate for their age.

Tantrums in children are to be expected, but a pattern of severe tantrums is a cause for concern. DMDD at least gives a name to a condition that many parents and clinicians already know exists and it provides a criterion-based framework for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Further Reading:

Randy Withers, LCMHC
Randy Withers, LCMHC
Managing Editor, Blunt Therapy

“It’s hard to make self-care a priority if you’re always on the go. That’s why I recommend BetterHelp. It’s affordable, confidential, and effective online counseling.”        

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About The Author

Randy Withers, LCMHC

Randy Withers, LCMHC

Randy Withers is the Managing Editor of Blunt Therapy. He's a Board-Certified Licensed Professional Counselor, Clinical Addictions Specialist, and Author living in North Carolina.
Randy Withers, LCMHC

Randy Withers, LCMHC

Randy Withers is the Managing Editor of Blunt Therapy. He's a Board-Certified Licensed Professional Counselor, Clinical Addictions Specialist, and Author living in North Carolina.

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