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Bipolar disorder or ADHD?

ADHD and bipolar disorder share some characteristics.

Bipolar disorder causes a person to have mood swings, which can also be a symptom of ADHD.

A preteen or teenager with mood swings may be going through a difficult but normal developmental stage. Or he or she can have actual bipolar disorder with mood swings going from depression to mania.

Symptoms of ADHD often mimic symptoms of bipolar disorder. With ADHD a child or teen may have rapid or impulsive speech, physical restlessness, trouble focusing, irritability and sometimes defiant or oppositional behaviour.

What is childhood bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a persistent and difficult illness. When it occurs in childhood or adolescence it can completely disrupt the life of the family. Bipolar disorder that's undiagnosed, misdiagnosed or poorly treated is associated with:

  • Increased rates of suicide attempts and completions
  • Poorer academic performances
  • Distressed relationships
  • Increased rates of substance abuse
  • Multiple hospital admissions

In adults bipolar disorder is marked by mood swings that go from depression to mania. Adult mania is characterised by euphoria, grandiosity, irritability, racing thoughts and frenetic activity. The definition of mania is not so clear for bipolar disorder in childhood. Some experts say that being irritable, cranky and negative can be the only signs of mania in children with bipolar disorder. And other experts argue that childhood bipolar disorder may not even be the same disease as adult bipolar disorder.

However what is clear is that bipolar disorder is an increasingly common diagnosis in children - including children of infant school age.

What are the warning signs of bipolar disorder in children and teens?

With bipolar disorder there are both manic symptoms and depressive symptoms. If your child or teenager has five or more symptoms that persist for at least a week, it is important to seek professional help. With medication and/or psychotherapy, doctors can help stabilise your child's moods. Treatment can also stop the depressed or manic thoughts and behaviours.

Manic symptoms include:

  • Severe changes in mood, either extremely irritable or overly silly and elated
  • Overly inflated self-esteem; grandiosity
  • Increased energy
  • Decreased need for sleep, ability to go with very little or no sleep for days without tiring
  • Increased talking, talks too much, too fast; changes topics too quickly; cannot be interrupted
  • Distractibility, attention moves constantly from one thing to the next
  • Hypersexuality, increased sexual thoughts, feelings or behaviours; use of explicit sexual language
  • Increased goal-directed activity or physical agitation
  • Disregard of risk, excessive involvement in risky behaviours or activities

Depressive symptoms include:

  • Persistent sad or irritable mood
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Significant change in appetite or body weight
  • Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
  • Physical agitation or slowing
  • Loss of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
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