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Learning & Emotional Problems

Bipolar Disorder

Flipping From High Energy to Crash Landings

Imagine being so energetic that you feel you might bounce off the walls. You have zillions of different thoughts, so many you think your head might split right open. You’re so full of different feelings buzzing around inside that you don’t know what to focus on first. You can hardly sleep — but you don’t feel tired. And you just can’t stop talking.

And then, without warning, you crash land. You feel so bad that everything seems sad, dark, and heavy. You can’t even imagine dragging yourself out of bed. Nothing feels good, and you’re certain that you’re stuck in this black hole forever.

But then you flip back to the super-high-energy mood. This time, everything seems irritating, and big angry rages come over you out of nowhere. Later, you crash again. You never know when you’ll feel one way or the other. And there’s not a lot of “everything’s OK” in between.

This is what it can be like for people who have bipolar disorder, a serious but treatable condition that both kids and adults can get. Sometimes known as manic depression, bipolar disorder is pretty rare, but more common than doctors once thought. Until it is treated, people who have it can’t control their moods as they swing from peak to bleak.

Sure, we all have days when we feel “off.” Maybe the soccer game was rained out, or the test was tougher than expected, or we just can’t figure out what to do with ourselves. We might say we have the blahs, or the blues, or that we’re depressed. But there’s a difference between feeling depressed and having an actual medical condition called depression.

A person who has bipolar disorder has intense moods that flip-flop back and forth between the low lows of depression and very energetic, high highs, which are called mania.

The Brain and Moods

Your brain is the control center for all the amazing workings of your body and mind — including your moods and behavior. For someone with bipolar disorder, the brain has trouble keeping control of moods. It is believed that certain genes are responsible for this problem.

People are more likely to develop bipolar disorder if they have inherited certain genes from parents. That’s why bipolar disorder, like other kinds of mood problems, including depression, runs in families. Just because a kid has a relative with bipolar illness doesn’t mean he or she will have it, too.

But for someone who has the genes for bipolar illness, a stressful experience may make it more likely to occur. Someone with bipolar disorder shouldn’t be blamed for having this condition. It’s not the person’s fault.

People with bipolar disorder may realize their moods are swinging from very high to very low, but they don’t know why or when these shifts will occur. Kids with bipolar disorder may have these dramatic shifts a lot, even several times an hour.

When kids have bipolar disorder they sometimes seem like they might have another condition, such as ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder). That’s because with either of these conditions a kid might think, talk, and act at a much faster than normal pace. But they are completely different conditions with different causes and different treatments.

Only a specially trained doctor should decide what the problem is and how to treat it. Of course, it’s possible for a person to have ADHD and bipolar disorder.

Mania and Deep Lows

In the high-energy phase of bipolar disorder (called mania, or a manic phase), a person might feel unusually positive about things — or be very irritable or even enraged (which means very angry). The person often will have a lot of extra energy and might believe he or she can do anything, even fly. The person’s thoughts might race from topic to topic, which can make it difficult to sleep well. If the person’s mood then crashes, he or she might feel very sad or irritable and might cry a lot.

Things that were fun no longer seem interesting, and the person may feel very tired and unable to concentrate. The person may even feel worthless or that life isn’t worth living.

Any time you are worried about your mood or feel unusually sad, you should talk with your parent or a trusted adult. Someone who is having mood swings might feel better after seeing a psychiatrist, a psychologist, or counselor.

It’s better to get medical attention quickly because then the person can start feeling better instead of letting the problems get worse.

Diagnosis and Treatment

It’s much easier to tell if someone has a broken bone or an ear infection than it is to determine that someone has bipolar disorder. But specially trained doctors can often figure it out by looking at the way the person acts or talks and by hearing about symptoms or past experiences. If a doctor says someone has bipolar disorder, it can usually be treated so that the person lives a full, creative, productive life.

A combination of medicines can help prevent the symptoms and treat them if they occur. Sometimes it takes the doctor a while to find the right medicines or the right amounts for a particular person. Treatment also involves talking with a doctor on a regular basis to learn how to manage intense moods. Sometimes talking with other people who also have bipolar disorder helps, too. Over time, someone with bipolar disorder can learn what to do to feel more in control during mood shifts.

Having bipolar disorder can be hard. The intense moods can cause someone to act in extreme ways. Mood problems can cause trouble in relationships and in the everyday things someone wants to do. People with bipolar illness don’t mean to be so intense or unpredictable and often don’t realize how their extreme moods affect others. Having a parent or a brother or sister with bipolar disorder can be hard on kids.

Although there’s no cure for bipolar disorder, it’s important to know that the condition can be treated and managed, especially if it’s diagnosed early. And scientists are doing a lot of research, especially on how it affects kids. This research is helping doctors understand more about how to help people with bipolar disorder.

Reviewed by: D’Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: March 2012