Frequently Asked Questions

About Early-Onset Bipolar Disorder

What is early-onset bipolar disorder and why are we suddenly hearing so much about it?

Early-onset bipolar disorder is manic-depression that appears early–very early–in life.

For many years it was assumed that children could not suffer the mood swings of mania or depression, but researchers are now reporting that bipolar disorder (or early temperamental features of it) can occur in very young children, and that it is much more common that previously thought.

Is bipolar disorder in children the same thing as bipolar disorder in adults?

Adults seem to experience abnormally intense moods for weeks or months at a time, but children appear to experience such rapid shifts of mood that they commonly cycle many times within the day. This cycling pattern is called ultra-ultra rapid or ultradian cycling and it is most often associated with low arousal states in the mornings (these children find it almost impossible to get up in the morning) followed by afternoons and evenings of increased energy.

It is not uncommon for the first episode of early-onset disorder to be a depressive one. But as clinical investigators have followed the course of the disorder in children, they have reported a significant rate of transition from depression into bipolar mood states.

What are the symptoms in childhood, and how early can they begin?

We have interviewed many parents who report that their children seemed different from birth, or that they noticed that something was wrong as early as 18 months. Their babies were often extremely difficult to settle, rarely slept, experienced separation anxiety, and seemed overly responsive to sensory stimulation.

In early childhood, the youngster may appear hyperactive, inattentive, fidgety, easily frustrated and prone to terrible temper tantrums (especially if the word “no” appears in the parental vocabulary). These explosions can go on for prolonged periods of time and the child can become quite aggressive or even violent. (Rarely does the child show this side to the outside world).

A child with bipolar disorder may be bossy, overbearing, extremely oppositional, and have difficulty making transitions. His or her mood can veer from morbid and hopeless to silly, giddy and goofy within very short periods of time. Some children experience social phobia, while others are extremely charismatic and and risk-taking.

If the child is fidgety and inattentive and hyperactive, isn't the correct diagnosis attention-deficit disorder with hyperactivity (ADHD)? Or, if the child is oppositional, wouldn't oppositional-defiant disorder (ODD) be the correct diagnosis?

Several studies have reported that over 80 percent of children who have early-onset bipolar disorder will meet full criteria for ADHD. It is possible that the disorders are co-morbid–appearing together–or that ADHD-like symptoms are a part of the bipolar picture. Also, the ADHD symptoms may simply appear first on the continuum of a developing disorder.

Children with bipolar disorder exhibit much more irritability, labile mood, grandiose behavior, and sleep disturbances– often accompanied by night terrors (nightmares filled with gore and life-threatening content)–than do children with ADHD.

Because stimulant medications may exacerbate a bipolar disorder and induce an episode or negatively influence the cycling pattern of a bipolar disorder, bipolar disorder should be ruled out first, before a stimulant is prescribed.

Almost all the children in our study of 120 boys and girls diagnosed with bipolar disorder met criteria for oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). Again, the child should be evaluated for a possible bipolar disorder.

So how would a doctor diagnose early-onset bipolar disorder?

The family history is an important clue in the diagnostic process. If the family history reveals mood disorders or alcoholism coming down one or both sides of the family tree, red flags should appear in the mind of the diagnostician. The illness has a strong genetic component, although it can skip a generation.

Many parents are told that the diagnosis cannot be made until the child grows into the upper edges of adolescence–between 16 and 19 years old. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatry–the DSM-IV–uses the same criteria to diagnose bipolar disorder in children as it does to diagnose the condition in adults, and requires that the manic and depressive episodes last a certain number of days or weeks. But as we already mentioned, the majority of bipolar children experience a much more chronic, irritable course, with many shifts of mood in a day, and often they will not meet the duration criteria of the DSM-IV. They will, instead, be diagnosed possibly as BP-Not Otherwise Specified(BP-NOS). However, this also does not really describe the symptoms seen in childhood.

The DSM needs to be updated to reflect what the illness looks like in childhood.

If a child hears voices or sees things, does that mean he or she is schizophrenic?

Absolutely not. Psychotic symptoms such as delusions (fixed, irrational beliefs) and hallucinations (seeing or hearing things not seen or heard by others) can occur during both phases of bipolar disorder. In fact, they are not uncommon. Sometimes the voices and visions are compelling; often they are threatening. Quite a few children report seeing bugs or snakes or say that they see and hear satanic figures.

What are the treatments for early-onset bipolar disorder?

The first line of treatment is to stabilize the child’s mood and to treat sleep disturbances and psychotic symptoms if present. Once the child is stable, a therapy that helps him or her understand the nature of the illness and how it affects his or her emotions and behaviors is a critical component of a comprehensive treatment plan.

Mood stabilizers are the mainstay of treatment for a bipolar disorder, but many of these medications have only recently begun to be used in children with the condition, so not a lot of data about their use in childhood bipolar disorder exists. Many psychiatrists are simply adapting what they know about the treatment of adults to the pediatric and adolescent population. (However, the anticonvulsant mood stabilizers such as Depakote and Tegretol, etc. have been used to treat young children with epilepsy for quite some time, so there is a literature about these drugs in the pediatric population.)

The mood stabilizers include lithium carbonate (Lithobid, Lithane, Eskalith), divalproex sodium (Depakote, Depakene), carbamazapine (Tegretol), and oxcarbazepine (Trileptal). Topirimate (Topomax), and tiagabine (Gabitril) are currently under clinical investigation for the treatment of bipolar disorder and are being used in children. Lamotrigine (Lamictal) is the only mood stabilizer that has a robust antidepressant effect but is not recommended for those under the age of 16. Note: Because of its antidepressant properties, a parent should ask the treating clinician if the Lamictal dose should be adjusted in the early spring so as not to induce mania.

If a child is experiencing psychotic symptoms and/or aggressive behavior, atypical antipsychotic drugs, risperidone (Risperdal), olanzapine (Zyprexa), quetiapine (Seroquel), and aripiprazole (Abilify) are commonly prescribed. Clonazepam (Klonopin), diazepam (Valium), and lorezapam (Ativan) are also used to treat anxiety states, induce sleep, and put a break on rapid-cycling swings in activity and energy.

Should antidepressants be used?

It’s very risky. Several studies have reported high rates of the induction of mania or hypomania and rapid-cycling in children with bipolar disorder who are exposed to antidepressant drugs of all classes.

In addition, the child may experience a marked increase in irritability and aggression. Many parents on the BPParents listserv (an on-line community of parents who communicate with each other from all over the world via E-mail) reported that their children experienced psychosis and were hospitalized subsequent to their treatment with antidepressants. Some children did well for weeks or even for three months before a switch into mania and ultra-rapid mood shifts began.

Can a child take antidepressants for the depressive periods after he or she is stabilized on a mood stabilizer?

Maybe. Some children may be able to take an antidepressant for a brief period if it is opposed by a mood stabilizer. More studies need to be done so that treatment recommendations can be made.