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Being a teenager is incredibly difficult. Bodies are changing, the search for an identity is beginning and heightened amounts of hormones are circulating. In the midst of all this, it’s understandable that irritability is high and mood swings rather common – but what if those mood swings are actually indicators of something else going on, and how do you know?
In today’s world, it seems like “bipolar” has become a buzzword to identify anyone who experiences a noticeable mood swing. But in order to better understand what could possibly be happening, we need to understand the disorder.
A study by the National Institute of Mental Health found that 2.9 percent of US teens ages 13-18 met the criteria for bipolar disorder. They also found that the rates increased with age, starting at 2 percent with younger teens and reaching a prevalence of 3.1 percent in older teens.
Some ways to know what your child is experiencing might be more than just a mood swing are if these emotional shifts are severe. Bipolar people experience what are called manic episodes. More than just being energetic, symptoms of this include getting little to no sleep without feeling tired, dressing differently, an increase in goal-directed activity at school or work, making risky decisions that are uncharacteristic for them, talking excessively and being easily distracted.
Those symptoms would last for at least one week nearly every day, shortly followed by a depressive episode – evidenced by symptoms like lack of appetite, significant weight loss, lack of energy or joy during activities they usually enjoy, frequent complaints of pain and feelings of worthlessness.
Hypomania (literally "under mania") is a sort of false sense of happiness – a high that typically precedes a low low. There is a persistent disinhibition and mood elevation (euphoria). The “up” feelings associated with hypomania are usually fleeting and can include racing thoughts, increased rate of speech, risk taking and increased sexual behavior.
Mania is a more severe and prolonged form of hypomania. Symptoms are intense enough that they interfere with the sufferer’s life, and they usually last for more than one week at a time. Suicide rates are up to 60 times higher for people who have experienced manic episodes.
Happiness is a genuine, lasting feeling that comes from being holistically well in your heart and mind. It’s not a mood, like mania, but rather a state of being. Teens who are showing progress in treatment for bipolar disorder will start exhibiting more signs of true happiness, as opposed to mania or depression.
If these symptoms check out, or if your child already has this diagnosis, the good news is that several proven and effective treatment options are available. Psychopharmacology has made great strides in recent years, and there are now medication options beyond just Lithium. Finding the right medication regimen will help stabilize moods. However the most long-lasting success comes from medication coupled with counseling. In addition to addressing the disorder, a well-rounded therapy program can also help with some of the common struggles your teen is likely going through.
If you’re a parent reading this, you may be saying to yourself, “I can get those appointments scheduled and give them rides, but what can I personally do to help?” The answer starts with being patient and understanding. It’s not your child’s fault that they’re experiencing a mood disorder, and it’s not your fault either. Change takes time – and finding outside sources of guidance and support makes the whole process much easier.
Some other ways to contribute to your child’s success are: keeping a regular routine, being involved in their treatment by advocating for them and keeping in communication with their providers. It’s important to note that if your child is experiencing a manic episode, they may refuse treatment. By making a plan ahead of time and explaining the importance of continuing care, you and your child can set yourselves up for success.
Teens are already under a great deal of pressure to fit in, make friends, get good grades and do activities outside of school. These pressures alone can sometimes be overwhelming for them and dealing with a mental illness on top of all that can make that feeling even more unbearable. If your child has been diagnosed with a mental disorder, it’s important to be aware that they are at a higher risk for drug and alcohol abuse, as well as higher risk for attempting suicide. Being cognizant of warning signs such as self-harm and isolation can provide a valuable early intervention. There are many resources available on this website and elsewhere that can help with these types of situations.
Remember that it’s equally important to take care of yourself. Caring for a teen with bipolar disorder is a stressful job, and it can exhaust you mentally and physically. When you’re emotionally drained, it can be much harder to cope with your child’s symptoms. But if you’re in a mentally well place, your child will ultimately have an easier time sticking to their treatment plan. This makes them less likely to lapse into severe episodes, which eases things up for everyone involved.
Bipolar teens can be angry, irritable, anxious, afraid and constantly on edge, which makes living with them very challenging at times. Helping your teen manage their bipolar rage is a complicated task that requires a lot of understanding, patience and coping strategies. Here are some things to keep in mind:
The more you understand how their disorder functions, the less likely you’ll be to take their outbursts personally. Keep in mind that your child lacks the abilities that others have to control their emotions and expression.
A counselor who has experience treating bipolar disorder in young people can help you talk through your issues, and help your kid come up with healthy ways of managing their stress.
Did you know that bipolar rage is considered to be more closely related to seizures than emotional outbursts? As such, medications like mood stabilizers and anti-seizure drugs can often be effective in helping kids get their bipolar symptoms under control. Talk to your child’s therapist to see if medication may be appropriate for them.
Since your teen’s outbursts are often triggered by stress, reducing stress in your household can help them feel more mentally well overall. Remember that your mental wellbeing is important to theirs, too – starting a mindfulness practice together, for example, is a great way to kill two birds with one stone.
While bipolar disorder can’t be cured, with the right family and professional support, it can be managed so that your teen feels more in control and able to live their life with minimal interference. There is no single test to diagnose bipolar disorder – rather, a psychologist will use multiple sources of information to comprehensively assess your teen’s situation. Gathering information about your family, your child’s medical history and any previous mental health concerns will help their counselor get a more accurate view into their life.
Once they do receive a treatment plan, it also helps to track their progress over time. Teens can switch from one type of bipolar disorder to another. Studies show that as many as one in three kids switch from bipolar disorder not otherwise specified (BP-NOS) to bipolar I or II, and an estimated one in five kids switch from bipolar I to bipolar II. If that’s the case for your child, you’ll need to adjust treatment accordingly. Keeping track of their treatments, daily moods, sleep patterns and notable events can provide valuable information to your child’s counselor, who can then work with you to make any necessary changes to their treatment plan.
Remember: you’re not alone. Many other parents have struggled to help their kids manage their bipolar disorder. Sandstone Care hosts a free, weekly support group for parents to share their experiences and receive support in a safe, nonjudgmental space. Visit the above link to see times and locations, and learn how you can connect with others who can help you navigate your challenges so your kid can be their best self. Sandstone Care has teen residential and intensive outpatient treatment for teens struggling with substance use and co-occurring mental health disorders. Give us a call at 888-850-1890.