Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder in Children

What to Do If You Think Your Child Has Bipolar Disorder

Moody child
Bipolar Disorder in Children. Credit: Sharon Dominick/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Children and adolescents with bipolar disorders experience severe mood and behaviors changes that are extreme and represent a major change from their typical mood and behavior. When are the symptoms severe enough to warrant evaluation and, potentially, diagnosis? Consider three basic rules of thumb: functioning, feeling, and family.


Are the problem behaviors of your child interfering with his daily functioning?

Is your son able to play with other children his age? Is your child able to attend school regularly?

What about family functionality? Do the demands of your son’s difficulties outweigh the needs of other members of the family or even you? In her book "Mommy I’m Still in Here," author Kate McLaughlin shares the toll her daughter’s illness took on her family. “Taking care of her took most of my time, leaving little one-on-one with Michael and Monica (her other two kids). They felt ignored, lost in the shuffle … We lived our lives around an illness.”


Does your child feel like there is something wrong with her? Does he feel overwhelmed handling normal activities other kids his age engage in? Does your child worry about things other kids don’t even think about?


Is there a history of mental illness in your child’s family? Research indicates that as many as 10% of those with a parent or sibling who has bipolar disorder will also develop bipolar disorder.

Studies have also demonstrated that family members with both schizophrenia and unipolar depression are commonly found in the same family tree as those with bipolar disorder (Maier et al, 2005).

    If your child is having difficulty with daily functioning or if your child is struggling with feeling normal – most especially over an extended period of time – then an evaluation by a psychiatrist may be warranted.

    If you answer yes to either of the first two rules of thumb and you have a family history of mental illness, an unbiased, professional opinion could bring you some peace of mind and perhaps a few new parenting skills.

    Very Common Symptoms of Childhood Bipolar Disorder

    Assuming that you've said YES to at least two of the three items above, you are probably curious about the specific symptoms of bipolar disorder.  The Bipolar Child by Demitri Papolos, MD, and Janice Papolos is an excellent resource for parents who have children with bipolar disorder. Below is an excerpt from their work (reprinted with permission), which lists those symptoms that Demitri and Janice found, in their research, were common to children who have bipolar disorder.

    • Separation anxiety
    • Rages & explosive temper tantrums (lasting up to several hours)
    • Marked irritability
    • Oppositional behavior
    • Frequent mood swings
    • Distractibility
    • Hyperactivity
    • Impulsivity
    • Restlessness/ fidgetiness
    • Silliness, goofiness, giddiness
    • Racing thoughts
    • Aggressive behavior
    • Grandiosity
    • Carbohydrate cravings
    • Risk-taking behaviors
    • Depressed mood
    • Lethargy
    • Low self-esteem
    • Difficulty getting up in the morning
    • Social anxiety
    • Oversensitivity to emotional or environmental triggers

      Common Symptoms of Childhood Bipolar Disorder

      • Bed-wetting (especially in boys)
      • Night terrors
      • Rapid or pressured speech
      • Obsessional behavior
      • Excessive daydreaming
      • Compulsive behavior
      • Motor & vocal tics
      • Learning disabilities
      • Poor short-term memory
      • Lack of organization
      • Fascination with gore or morbid topics
      • Hypersexuality
      • Manipulative behavior
      • Bossiness
      • Lying
      • Suicidal thoughts
      • Destruction of property
      • Paranoia
      • Hallucinations & delusions

      Less Common Symptoms of Childhood Bipolar Disorder

      • Migraine headaches
      • Binging
      • Self-mutilating behaviors
      • Cruelty to animals

      Symptoms Described by a Scientific Study

      In a 2008 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders, of 130 children and adolescents with bipolar disorders, nearly all of them exhibited either two to three of the following symptoms when manic:  

      • Elation: out-of-context extreme joy and not just normal joy or excitement
      • Grandiosity: extreme sense of entitlement or self-confidence
      • Racing thoughts: recurrent episodes of talking, so rapid that it's hard to understand the child

      What You Should Do if You Think Your Child Has Bipolar Disorder

      It's important to know that children with bipolar disorder usually have extreme, severe fluctuations in their mood and behavior. With that, it's common for children to experience some of the symptoms listed above, and the majority do not have bipolar disorder. 

      If you are concerned about your child's mood or behavior, please speak with your pediatrician. Your child may benefit from an evaluation by a psychiatrist or you may just need some reassurance. Seek out advice and help for your precious one, so you are not carrying your worries or concerns alone. 


      National Institute of Mental Health. Bipolar Disorder in Children and Adolescents

      Staton D, Volness LJ, & Beatty WW. Diagnosis and classification of pediatric bipolar disorder. J Affect Disord. 2008 Jan;105(1-3):205-12.