How To Identify Bipolar In Teens

By: Julia Thomas

Updated August 28, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Melinda Santa

Are you worried that your teen may have bipolar disorder? Most parents and other loved ones worry about teenagers in their life at one time or another. When you're concerned about their mental health, it can be hard to understand what's happening to them. Yet, mental illness is a significant problem for teens. Fifty percent of all chronic mental conditions begin at the age of 14. So, if you think your teen might have mental health issues, it's important to be as informed as possible. Here's how you can identify bipolar in teens.

What Is Bipolar Disorder?

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Bipolar is a mental illness. More specifically, it's a mood disorder. In the past, this disorder was referred to as manic-depressive illness. That term isn't used as often now, but it does mention the two main phases of bipolar disorder, which are mania and depression.

When someone has bipolar disorder, there's a problem with the way their brain regulates their moods. This can affect their mood, energy level, how active they are, and whether they can function in their everyday life. Their brain's inability to regulate their moods can cause them to have very happy, excited moods as well as sad, discouraged moods. In either phase, their moods are very intense.

Causes Of Bipolar Disorder In Teens

Doctors and scientists aren't yet sure exactly what causes bipolar disorder. This condition tends to run in families. However, just because someone in your family has it, it doesn't mean that you or another family member will also have it. There may be a genetic component in which someone with a certain gene is more likely to have bipolar disorder than someone without that gene. However, which gene that might be is still unknown. Also, studies of identical twins have shown that one twin doesn't always get bipolar disorder even though the other with the same genetic makeup does. There may be issues with the way the brains of people who are predisposed to bipolar disorder are structured or function as well.

What Are The Symptoms Of Bipolar Disorder In Teens?


Teens with bipolar disorder may have manic episodes, in which they're elated and extremely energetic. Manic episodes that have the same characteristics but are less severe are called hypomanic phases. If your teen is sad and utterly hopeless, they might be in a depressive phase of bipolar disorder. And, if they have symptoms of mania and depression at the same time, they might be having a mixed episode of bipolar disorder.

Symptoms Of Manic Episodes

Mania has symptoms that are related to changes in a person's energy and mood. To be significant, the manic symptoms must occur most of the time for most days of a week. Some of the symptoms include:

  • Elation
  • Excessive energy
  • Increased activity
  • Feeling jumpy or uneasy
  • Restlessness
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Having an exaggerated idea of what they can do
  • Engaging in risky behaviors
  • Inflated self-esteem
  • Rapid and pressured talking
  • Confused speech
  • Racing thoughts
  • Being easily distracted
  • Trouble sleeping/insomnia
  • Heightened sex drive
  • Poor judgment
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Working feverishly to achieve goals that often don't make much sense

Symptoms Of Depressive Episodes

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During depressive episodes, your teen might experience very sad feelings, have a lot of negative thoughts, and have very little energy. Depressive symptoms are significant if they happen about every day for two weeks. Here are some of the symptoms you might notice during a depressive phase:

  • Feeling sad or down
  • Feeling empty
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Gaining or losing a lot of weight
  • Finding little enjoyment in life
  • Losing interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Forgetfulness
  • Feeling tired or slowed down
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Feelings of extreme guilt without a real reason for it
  • Trouble making decisions
  • Low self-esteem
  • Relationship problems
  • Lots of complaints about headaches, stomach aches, or body aches
  • Running away from home
  • Isolating themselves
  • Obsessing about death or suicidal thoughts

Other Types Of Episodes

Two other types of episodes that can happen in bipolar disorder are hypomania and mixed episodes. Hypomanic episodes last at least four days in a row. The symptoms are similar to mania, but they're less severe. They may not cause any problems for the teen at all, at least in the short term. In fact, teens often get a lot accomplished during hypomanic phases. However, if they engage in risky behavior, hypomania can lead to long-term problems like unplanned pregnancies and STDs, car accidents, injuries, and drug addiction. Additionally, teens who start with hypomania often develop symptoms of mania and depression later on.

In a bipolar episode with mixed features, the teen has symptoms that fall into both the depressed and manic categories. For example, they might have an extreme amount of energy but feel very sad at the same time.

Related Conditions And Problems

Teens with bipolar disorder often have other problems that may be directly or indirectly related to their condition. For example, they may abuse drugs. They may obtain and use illegal drugs, or they might abuse prescription drugs that they find in the home. If they get caught purchasing or using illegal drugs, they may have legal problems as well.

Bipolar disorder can also co-occur with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In fact, 70 percent of people who have bipolar disorder also have ADHD. Another issue is behavior problems. Many children who disrupt classes or act out with their peers are experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Is It Really Bipolar Disorder?

Before you try to solve your child's mental health problems, it's important to know for sure what they are. Here are some things to keep in mind as you consider whether your child has bipolar disorder or not.

First, every teen faces difficult challenges at school, at home, in their social life, and as they prepare themselves for adulthood. So, you need to be mindful that life won't always go smoothly for them or with them.

Second, these symptoms may sound very familiar to almost every parent of a teen. However, they don't always spell a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. If they're very mild or don't happen very often or for very long, they might be just a natural part of life and growing up.

Third, symptoms of bipolar disorder can also be signs of other conditions. For example, stomachaches and low energy may be a sign of a medical problem. So, it's important to rule out other mental and physical disorders before you assume it's bipolar disorder.

Finally, knowing the symptoms and signs of bipolar disorder is helpful if you use this information to get your teen the help they need. However, you need to keep in mind that only a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist or a psychologist can make that determination. You can stay alert and seek help if it seems warranted. What you can't do is make a diagnosis or give them appropriate treatment on your own.

Getting A Diagnosis


The first step to dealing with possible bipolar disorder in teens is to seek help from a mental health provider. They need to interview the teen to make an evaluation. They will typically start with a medical history as well as a family history that includes mental health issues. They may make referrals for medical testing and treatment if needed. They may have the teen take a diagnostic screening quiz. During the interview, they pay attention, not only to the information your teen is telling them but also to the way they are speaking and behaving. They'll compare everything they learn from the interview with the diagnostic criteria from the DSM-5. Only then will they conclude whether your teen has bipolar disorder or not.

What Help Is Available?

Help for bipolar disorder comes in many forms. Medications are usually prescribed to regulate the mood or help with other aspects of the condition. Mood stabilizers help keep the mood more even and steady. Antidepressants can lift the mood during a depressive phase, but the psychiatrist must choose one that doesn't elevate the mood so much that it doesn't result in a manic episode.

A psychologist or social worker may work with your teen's school to find out how bipolar disorder is affecting the teen there. They sometimes make accommodations to help the child succeed in school despite their mental health problems.

Many families with a teen who has bipolar disorder benefit from family therapy as well. Talking about the issues related to this mental condition can help the family come together to provide better support for the teen. At the same time, the teen can learn to communicate their needs more effectively with their family.

Psychotherapy can help your teen learn to deal with the ups and downs that come with this mental disorder. The teen can learn to make better decisions and take better care of themselves. Getting the right help can reduce their vulnerability to the problems that come with bipolar disorder in teens.

Help is available for bipolar disorder at BetterHelp, where you can conveniently get online therapy. Counseling can not only help a teen with bipolar disorder, but it can also help the parent or another caregiver who is dealing with their child's problems. Bipolar disorder in teens may be hard to spot on your own. But, with the right assistance, you can find out if your teen has this condition and help them get the treatment they need to live a good life.


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