Your child and bipolar disorder

By Drum Digital
26 May 2014

Most parents know about bipolar disorder, but there’s still a lot of misunderstanding around the illness and how it affects children. We answer the most frequently asked questions.

Most parents know about bipolar disorder, but there’s still a lot of misunderstanding around the illness and how it affects children. We answer the most frequently asked questions.

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a condition that affects the brain and is also sometimes referred to as manic-depressive illness. People with bipolar disorder go through unusual mood changes. Sometimes they feel extremely happy or "up" and are much more active than usual. This mental state is called mania. Then at other times they tend to feel rather sad and "down" and are much less active than usual. This is called depression.

Bipolar disorder isn’t the same as the normal ups and downs every kid goes through. The symptoms are much more powerful and can make it hard for a child to do well in school or get along with friends and family members. The condition can also be dangerous because some young people might try to hurt themselves or attempt suicide as a result. However, with the proper treatment, those with bipolar disorder can manage their symptoms and lead successful lives.

Who’s at risk of bipolar disorder?

Anyone can develop the disorder, including children and teens. However, most people with bipolar disorder develop it in their late teen or early adult years. The illness usually lasts a lifetime.

What causes it? 

The exact cause of bipolar disorder isn’t known, but it’s believed to be a combination of biochemical, genetic and anxiety factors.

  • Biochemistry: Research has shown bipolar disorder is associated with a chemical imbalance in the brain, which can be addressed with appropriate medication.
  • Genetics: The disorder tends to run in families. Researchers have identified a number of genes that may be linked to the disorder. However, if you have bipolar disorder and your spouse doesn’t, there’s only a one in seven chance your child will develop it.
  • Anxiety disorders: Children with anxiety disorders are more likely to develop bipolar disorder.

Signs and symptoms

Bipolar disorder can look different in different people. The pattern, severity and frequency of patterns vary widely.

There are four types of mood episodes in bipolar disorder: mania, hypomania, depression and mixed episodes. Each type of bipolar disorder mood episode has a unique set of symptoms.

Some children are more prone to either mania or depression, while others alternate equally between the two types of episodes.

Children and teens having a manic episode may:

  • Feel very happy or act silly in a way that's unusual;
  • Have a very short temper;
  • Talk really fast about a lot of different things;
  • Have trouble sleeping but not feel tired;
  • Have trouble staying focused;
  • Talk and think about sex more often;
  • Do risky things.

Children and teens having a depressive episode may:

  • Feel very sad;
  • Complain about pain a lot, such as stomach aches and headaches;
  • Sleep too little or too much;
  • Feel guilty and worthless;
  • Eat too little or too much;
  • Have little energy and no interest in fun activities;
  • Think about death or suicide.

How is bipolar disorder treated?

Doctors often treat children who have the illness in a similar way to adults. Treatment can help control symptoms and works best when it’s ongoing.

  • Medication: Different types of medication can help. Children respond to medications in different ways, so the type of medication depends on the child. Some children may need more than one type of medication because their symptoms are so complex.
  • Therapy: Different kinds of psychotherapy can help children with bipolar disorder. Therapy can help children change their behaviour and manage their routines. It can also help young people get along better with family and friends. Sometimes therapy includes family members.

How to help your child

  • Help your child to find out what their mental illness is and to get treatment. Take your child to a psychiatrist, psychologist, clinic, doctor or counsellor to find out what’s wrong.
  • Learn more. Bipolar disorder is a disease. Learn about it. The more you know, the more you can help your child to get better.
  • Find a support group. Find out if there are any support groups in your area. Sharing fears, worries and feelings with other people who are in the same situation helps hugely.
  • Let your child be part of your activities. Invite your child to come with you and the rest of the family for walks, church and other activities you’d normally do. Encourage him/her to join in fun activities – both new events and things the person enjoyed before they had depression or bipolar disorder.
  • Listen! Listen to your child and don’t leave him/her out of family discussions because you think it would be less stressful. Treat your child as normally as possible.
  • Care for and support you child: Being with family and friends is important for your child to get better; always tell your child you care for and love him/her.

Get help here

If you suspect your child has manic depression, you should consult a mental health professional in your community or you can call the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) on 0800-70-80-90 or  011- 234- 4870 for more information and help.

-Janine Nel


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