How Young is Too Young to Be Bipolar?

February 15, 2010 Cristina Fender

Rebecca Riley was a four year old child who overdosed on medication for Bipolar and ADHD. It was an unfortunate incident that left me personally saddened. Where were her parents? Could this have been prevented? Do we diagnose children with Bipolar Disorder too readily? How young is too young to be diagnosed as bipolar?

For those of you not familiar with the case, Rebecca Riley was given too much medication for ADHD and bipolar disorder and died of an overdose. The doctor claims that the parents told her that they had lost one bottle and another bottle of pills had gotten wet, when, in actuality, the parents were giving Rebecca too much medication. For days, Rebecca could barely keep her head up and the school nurse had contacted the doctor to tell her what was going on. But, no one stepped in to save Rebecca.

As a mother of two, I am deeply concerned over this case.

I’m even more concerned because I have bipolar disorder. There’s a one in four chance that I will pass on my illness to my children so I’m constantly looking for signs of trouble. So far, I haven’t noticed that my children are having huge temper tantrums and they seem to be happy children. I heave a sigh of relief. My children will not suffer Rebecca’s fate. They will not be children with Bipolar Disorder.

I beg the question, how young is too young to be bipolar?

Is it plausible that children with bipolar disorder can be diagnosed at the age of two? And if they do show signs of bipolar disorder, is it possible that they’ll grow out of it? I do think it’s possible that children show signs of bipolar disorder early on in their lifetime, but I also think they could possibly grow out of it.

My child won’t sit still. I can’t count on her behaving enough to sit down and play quietly, but I don’t take that as a sign that she has bipolar disorder. I take that as a sign that she’s two and she needs some help from me. I don’t take her to the doctor for diagnosis as ADHD or bipolar disorder. If she indeed has these disorders then I will take her to the doctor when she is a bit older. I don’t think it’s necessary to drug her at this age because I believe she’ll grow out of it.

As adult bipolars we can recognize that a single pill doesn’t cure all.

It doesn’t wash away all the bipolar in our system. I wish that Rebecca’s parents had been more aware of that fact. Then maybe they wouldn’t have put pill after pill down Rebecca’s throat because they thought more would cure her. They should have wondered how young is too young to be bipolar and is it possible for children with bipolar disorder to exist. Rebecca might be alive today.


Caroline Riley was convicted of first degree murder. Her husband, Michael, stands trial beginning on March 8, 2010.

APA Reference
Fender, C. (2010, February 15). How Young is Too Young to Be Bipolar?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 15 from

Author: Cristina Fender

February, 19 2010 at 7:54 am

I was born in 64. Back then, a child with behavioral problems was labeled as hyperactive and given ritalin most likely. My mom had given me the prescribed dose, 1 pill - but she said she didn't like what that did to me. I was a zombie, so the next dose she cut in half. She still didn't like what it was doing to me so the next dose was a quarter of what was rx'd and my mother was happy with the result. She did report everything to my doctor. So, my story is the opposite of this poor little angel's story. But what I want to relay here is 1. yes, as parents we must be diligent when our children are on medication, especially powerful, mood altering, mind altering ones. 2. never, ever change dose without doctors approval and finally 3. It turns out that I never was hyperactive or ADD or ADHD which it is commonly referred to today. I was bipolar and misdiagnosed. So I don't think that we are seeing more diagnosis of bipolar in children per se, just more correct diagnosis. I think a lot of the problem is speed doctor appts. There needs to be more time allowed for children especially when it comes to mental illness.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Cristina Fender
February, 19 2010 at 9:05 am

Mary Monica,
You make some excellent points. I do think that bipolar is being more diagnosed because there's more knowledge about the disorder. Mental illness is difficult to treat regardless what age you are. I think your mother was responsible in being able to tell how much medicine was too overwhelming for you. I don't think that every parent out there is that in-tune with their children and therein lies the problem. Parents need to be well educated about what they're giving their children.
I definitely agree with you that there needs to be more time allotted for children's psychiatric appointments. Some children are shy and they don't show their true colors in fifteen minutes.
Excellent points, Mary Monica. Thanks for commenting.

February, 18 2010 at 5:13 am

Dear Cristina,
I was diagnosed as having Bipolar 1 disorder in 1996 and hospitalized at the time. However, with good medication, I have been able to overcome this illness and lead a normal life since then.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Cristina Fender
February, 19 2010 at 11:11 pm

What kind of medication are you on?

Martha Holda
February, 18 2010 at 3:53 am

Can you add the above postscript to my original comment?
Discipline is guidance, not ever punishment.
Thank you.

Martha Holda
February, 18 2010 at 3:51 am

Let me please add that I see discipline as boundaries, consistent and firmly set with love.

Martha Holda
February, 18 2010 at 3:49 am

My perspective is different. I had a male student when I was a kindergarten day care teacher. He had already been diagnosed bipolar, and his mother confided in me that she aslo was bipolar.
She loved him so much and struggled as he was kicked out of regular school. Then he was almost kicked out of the treatment center.
I was the one who gave the family a tour when they came to our day care. He had a tantrum that day, mild compared to what I later witnessed. One day he became upset because of diet restriction at lunch time. He laid on the floor and with his legs pushed a child height six foot table across the room in one shove.
So much anger in him, for so many reasons. His birth father was long gone and his family now included four children younger than himself. The new father accepted him.
His eyes were haunting. I could see the difference in his look when he was about to lose control, and I worked diligently to build his confidence and to relate with him in a loving and non-disciplinary manner when he was not symptomatic.
His dark brown eyes are beautiful. I still keep in touch with the family. I knelt to look into his face a few weeks ago. He quietly said "I still remember you." I am happy to report that he is back in regular school for some time now.
His home remains in some chaos as you might guess with a single mom with five youngsters. She stays on her medicine. She tried to go to school at the nearby junior college. They had her in Algebra. Of course, she dropped out.
The program and system has failed her and her children. Her day care hours were limited when she was in school. Those children need all the day care opportunity possible so the cycle of poverty can be stopped.
There is a grandmother in this picture, who has been awesome support for this mother and child with bipolar. She bought the little house where they live. She makes sure they have food and winter coats.
I am now inspired to check back with the mom to see whatelse is availabe for her in the area. Since I am involved in NAMI, I have access to resource lists.
And now I just thought of this family as an awesome nomination for the return to my town of Extreme Makeover. They are looking for a family who struggles with mental health issues.
Onward to long term recovery for all.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Cristina Fender
February, 18 2010 at 4:23 am

Thank you for sharing your story. I'm sure we all can benefit from it.

Carol A Ruby
February, 17 2010 at 8:22 pm

The death of Rebecca Riley is a tragedy, but I question the murder conviction.
This child was on powerful medications and should have been supervised more closely by the Doctor and the school nurse. They are also culpable.
Why would the parents believe more medication would cure the child? Where was the counseling for parents and child?
Most young couples today have little experience with child care. Modern families typically have one to three children born within a decade. They have no practical experience in childcare and when coupled with early marriage, we have babies raising babies.
Add in the mobility of today's society and there is very little practical help in childrearing. Raising children with nothing more than on the job training is dubious at best and can quickly become lethal.
Did the Doctor give medications to a four year old child without counseling? Most of these medications are controlled substances. Why didn't the Doctor request an office visit before suppling more medications? For that matter, what qualifications and experience does this Doctor have for pediatric psychiatric care?
It's bad enough that adults are treated for psychiatric disorders without adequate supervision from a qualified Psychiatrist; but it's outrageous for young children to be treated so carelessly.
Children still die from parental careless behavior all the time; drowning in pool or bath, backed over by family car, toxic household chemicals, playing with matches; the list goes on and we do not prosecute the parents for unintended consequences.
Why were these parents so very different?
We don't prosecute parents who refuse vaccinations for their children. Not even when the child dies from the lack of those vaccinations.
Yes, they gave the child way too much medicine, but did the Doctor make sure they understood how dangerous that was? Why wasn't counseling the first option and medication only if necessary and closely supervised?
Sadly, the answer to most of my questions is insurance. It comes down to money. The system didn't care enough until after the death of that precious little girl.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Cristina Fender
February, 18 2010 at 4:15 am

I think they all had a responsibility to keep that girl safe. I question whether or not she had bipolar. Bipolar for children has increased in this day and age. I watch for it closely in my own children, but it would have to be really awful before I'd seek psychiatric help.
By the way, the doctor in question has quit practicing until she can be reviewed by the medical board.
Thanks for stopping by and commenting! It was nice to see you!

February, 15 2010 at 4:35 am

How disturbing.
I did not know the 25% chance. I've been concerned about my daughter. I wonder, how does a parent decide what is normal behavior and what is something that needs help. Maybe something normal to me is actually a result of my bipolar.
IE: Her dramatic tantrums. Her mood swings. Her temper. Her tears.
I've sort of been waiting for puberty, because that is when it has been traditionally diagnosed.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Cristina Fender
February, 15 2010 at 11:15 pm

I don't know if your daughter has bipolar. The only way to know for sure is to have her tested by several child psychiatrists.
I guess if my daughter was exhibiting those symptoms I would be concerned. I would hope that I would recognize myself in her and get her the help she needs as soon as possible.
Let us know about the outcome.

February, 15 2010 at 2:51 am

This post really sat with me. I think this mother deserves to be convicted of murder. Diagnosing a child at an early age is possible, but meds aren't going to cure it. believe me I know!
My son was diagnosed recently at the age of 7. I've known since he was 4 that this was most likely going to be the outcome someday, but I've taken my time and exhausted all other options. I don't want him to be bipolar. And I don't want him to be on meds. But I do want to help him.
It's mothers like this though that make mothers like me look crazy and like a pill pusher. She makes me ill!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Cristina Fender
February, 15 2010 at 11:10 pm

I totally agree that meds aren't going to cure it and the mother should have been more responsible.
I don't think there's any question that some children develop bipolar symptoms early in life. I think it's up to the parents to be more responsible with what they're given.
Thanks for the comment!

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