As any parent knows, children often become moody and distant as they brave the ups and downs of puberty, hormones, and all the other fun stuff that signals teenagerhood. However, considering fifty percent of all mental health illnesses start at the age of 14, it’s important to pay special attention to your child and determine if their behavior is a product of normal teenage angst, or something more, like bipolar disorder. Formerly known as manic depression or manic-depressive illness, bipolar disorder is a mental disorder that affects the brain and causes intense mood swings that range from emotional, manic highs to depressive lows, which result in changes in energy, sleep, and ability to function, making it difficult to complete everyday tasks. Here are three major signs to look for if you think your teenager might have bipolar disorder.
Intense Mood Swings
Although the signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder are extensive and varied, intense and sometimes even sudden changes in feeling appear frequently in teenagers affected by the mood disorder. Most commonly, teens with bipolar disorder experience long periods of time in which they feel overly happy or “high”, which are often followed by periods of extreme depression and fatigue. Depending on whether your teen is experiencing a “high” or a “low”, the erratic mood swings may result in other seesawing reactions. Manic teens, for example, often develop a short temper and an extreme inability to focus, which may impact their performance in school. On the other hand, when experiencing a subsequent depressive episode, teenagers are likely to lose interest in activities they usually enjoy and struggle with feelings of worthlessness. As a result, your child may withdraw from friends and family and isolate themselves more than usual or for longer periods of time.
Changes in Sleep
Sleep is another area where the line between bipolar disorder and regular teenage behavior may become blurred. With the number of social and technological distractions constantly growing, it is common for teenagers to stay up way later than they should at night, which results in disrupted sleep schedules and cranky, overtired kids in the morning. But when it comes to bipolar disorder, the amount of sleep your teen needs (or think they need) will depend on whether they are having a manic or depressive episode. For instance, a teen having a manic episode will have a reduced need for sleep, sleeping only for a few hours a night or perhaps not at all but still have excess energy, while they will likely struggle to get out of bed and even sleep for up to twelve hours a day during a depression episode. Either way, the abrupt and drastic changes in sleep caused by bipolar disorder will further exhaust your child and exacerbate their other symptoms or even result in new ones, such as anxious distress and psychosis.
Engaging in Different or Risky Behavior
Another telling sign of bipolar disorder in teenagers is intense and frequent changes in behavior. While this may seem too broad a sign to look for at first (especially in hormonal, coming-of-age adolescents), the changes will likely become more obvious if the symptoms go untreated. As a result of the sudden feelings of inflated self-esteem and confidence that comes with manic episodes, teenagers with bipolar disorder will engage in risky or unusual behavior that they would not otherwise pursue and can include anything from short outbursts and poor judgement to becoming overly sexually active, engaging in dangerous drug or alcohol use, and thinking about or obsessing over death and suicide. If your teenager will not open up to you but you are worried, they may be having serious suicidal thoughts, seek help from a medical professional or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline immediately.
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