Bipolar Disorder in Teenagers – Signs and Symptoms to Watch For in Your Adolescent


In this article another form of psychological distress, bipolar disorder,  is presented along with its typical cries for help (also called symptoms) and its relation to depression. Let’s pay attention to the demeaning effect that a diagnosis can have when it reduces our distress to a mental disorder. Every good psychologist will be acutely aware of this.

Some teenagers who have episodes of depression are actually suffering from Bipolar Disorder.  It is important to tell the difference because Bipolar Disorder and Depression are two different disorders with different treatments, different medications, and different outcomes.  Adolescent Bipolar Disorder is referred to as “early onset Bipolar Disorder” and may be a more severe form of Bipolar Disorder requiring early intervention and treatment.

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar is a disorder of mood in which the individual has periods of depression as well as one or more lifetime episodes of mania.  Bipolar depression is similar to other forms of severe depression, and is characterized by a two week period in which the person experiences several of the following symptoms:

  • Depressed mood

  • Loss of pleasure or enjoyment in daily activities

  • Sleep disturbance

  • Appetite disturbance

  • Problems with attention, concentration, memory, decision making

  • Feeling tired and exhausted for no apparent reason

  • Walking and moving about more slowly than usual, or the opposite – restless, pacing about, unable to sit still

  • Low self-esteem to the point of worthlessness or extreme guilt

  • Thoughts of death, suicide, or any suicidal gestures, actions, or attempts

What makes adolescents who have Bipolar Disorder different from adolescents who are suffering from Depression is the presence of bipolar mania.  Bipolar mania involves a distinct period of mood lasting at least four days or longer in which the individual feels unusually happy, cheerful, or highly irritable. The mood change cannot be explained by some external event such as winning an award or a death in the family, and it cannot be caused by drugs or alcohol. During this mood episode, several of the following symptoms must be present:

  • Increased self-esteem or grandiosity

  • Decreased need for sleep

  • Talking more rapidly than usual

  • More rapid thoughts than usual

  • More distractible than usual

  • Engaging in highly pleasurable or risky activities such as sex, drugs, spending, and partying that have a high potential for painful consequences

  • Excessive devotion to goal directed activities such as sports, music, or computer games, or extremely restless, agitated behavior

Bipolar Disorder in Teenagers

In teenagers, Bipolar Disorder can cause serious problems with completing school assignments, getting bad grades, friendships, family relationships, and result in legal problems.  Teens with bipolar disorder also may develop drug problems or attempt to hurt themselves by cutting or burning themselves or by making suicide attempts.

If you suspect that your child is showing signs of Bipolar Disorder, have him or her evaluated by a qualified mental health professional such as a psychologist as quickly as possible.  Treatment involves medication and psychotherapy.  Children with Bipolar Disorder are more likely to have ADHD, an Anxiety Disorder, an Eating Disorder, or a Drug Abuse problem, so be aware that your child is at risk for these conditions as well if he or she is showing signs and symptoms of Bipolar Disorder.

Bipolar Disorder is highly responsive to treatment.  Please seek help for your child as soon as possible.  Also please take any worrisome signs such as talk of suicide or risky behavior very seriously and get professional help as soon as possible.  In such a situation, do not leave your adolescent alone.  Call your doctor or take the child to the hospital Emergency Room at once. You may also call a suicide hot line such as the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800) 273-8255.

Dr. Valone is the Founder and CEO of The Arroyos® Psychological Associates and The Arroyos® Treatment Centers. He has acquired specialized skills such as expert differential diagnosis, psychological clinical psychopharmacology, psychological testing and assessment. Dr. Valone dedicates himself to helping patients with bipolar disorder, depression, sleep disorders, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and chemical dependency. He believes that each patient who is suffering from severe emotional and mental disorders should be provided with an individualized treatment plan tailored to each patient’s specific needs.