Child with Bipolar! Is It Possible?
Can a child have bipolar disorder?
According to studies, approximately 2.1% of adults have bipolar disorder type I or bipolar disorder type II at some point in their lifetime, but is a child with bipolar possible? The intuitive answer for many is “no.” Mental illnesses are often thought to be “adult problems” and thus bipolar children can’t exist. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. Studies show that a child with bipolar disorder is quite possible.
How Common Is Childhood Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar children are said to have pediatric bipolar disorder or early-onset bipolar disorder. It was once thought that bipolar disorder in children was extremely rare, but studies now show that it is much more common than once thought.
Bipolar disorder in youth (under the age of 20) has been shown to range between 1-1.8% in one meta-analysis. In other study, it was found that between 0.2-0.4% children have bipolar disorder type I and about 1% of adolescents have bipolar disorder type I.
Overall, about 20-30% of adults with bipolar disorder type I had symptoms before the age of 20.
The numbers above do not reflect the prevalence of bipolar disorder type II as there is a lack of study in this area.
Adult vs. Childhood Bipolar Disorder
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) does not differentiate between adult and childhood bipolar disorder. This means that a child with bipolar disorder must meet the same criteria for experiencing both a manic and depressive episode for a diagnosis of bipolar type I or must experience both a hypomanic and depressive episode for a diagnosis of bipolar disorder type II.
This is in spite of the fact that some say a child with bipolar disorder may have different symptoms than an adult. And while clinical experience seems to bear this out, right now there is not enough research on the subject to pinpoint what specific symptoms children with bipolar might experience.
The Good News About a Child with Bipolar Disorder
While it’s very difficult for both the parents and the child with bipolar disorder, the good news is that the sooner bipolar disorder in a child can be detected, the sooner it can be treated. This means that the impact that this illness could have on a child’s family, schooling and relationships can be minimized. The earlier a mental illness is treated, typically, the better the outcome as well.
While relatively few bipolar medications have been tested in youth, some are used and are found to be effective. It can take time to find the right one and the right dose for any individual child with bipolar disorder. Additionally, family-focused therapy can decrease the chance of suicide in bipolar youth.
In other words, while it can be a major adjustment when a child has bipolar disorder, there is hope in treatment. Bipolar disorder in childhood is not the end of a child’s life.
Last Updated: 08 November 2017
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD