Does your teen have intense mood swings? Does his/her behavior change dramatically often? Does your teen go from extreme excitement to a heavy low? Are these variations in mood different from what you see in their friends and other teens you know? Frequent moodiness can often be attributed to normal adolescent development, but when “normal” behavior is accompanied by a list of other disruptive behavior changes, there may be something more going on. If unexplained extreme mood changes are affecting your teen at school and home, they may have bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder is a serious mental condition that causes radical mood swings. It usually appears in the late teen or early adult years and is marked by periods of manic and depressive episodes. Doctors aren’t sure what causes the disorder, but it is thought to be a combination of genetics, brain function, and environment. These episodes are not the usual ups and downs experienced by adolescents. They are more extreme and accompanied by other symptoms like changes in sleep patterns, eating habits, energy, and focusing ability. These symptoms can be so overwhelming that the youth finds it difficult to function normally at school and in daily life. Both types of episodes can affect judgement, thinking, and social behavior often causing embarrassment and serious problems.

A manic episode (the high) is a period of extreme happiness and excessive energy that lasts at least a week. Teens may have a short temper, talk very fast, be unable to focus, be unable to sleep but not feel tired, do risky or compulsive things, or become overly sexual. The behavior is so extreme it interferes with daily life.

A depressive episode (the low) is a period of intense sadness or depression that also continues for multiple weeks. Teens may feel down, worthless or empty, have little energy, complain of physical symptoms like stomach aches or headaches, have changes in eating and sleeping patterns, be indecisive, lose interest in friends and activities, and may have thoughts of death or suicide.

Although there is no cure for bipolar disorder, there are treatment options that can help control symptoms including medication and psychotherapy. The most effective therapy plan is one that involves the teen, medical professionals, and the parents working together. If your teen’s bipolar disorder changes, the plan needs to change too. Keeping a “mood chart” or daily log can not only help your child understand how the illness affects him/her, it can help doctors distinguish between what is or isn’t working.

As a parent, there are also things you can do to help your teen:

  • Remind your teen how important it is to regularly take all prescribed medications.
  • Be patient.
  • Listen to your teen and encourage them to communicate.
  • Help your teen see the good in life and even have fun.
  • Try to be understanding when episodes hit.
  • Remind your child treatment is important and can help.

Perhaps most importantly, take care of yourself. The stress of caring for a teen with a mental illness can take its toll. Find support groups or someone to talk to, keep yourself rested and healthy, and take time to recharge – all these things can help you stay strong and be there when your teen needs you the most.

Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness that needs to be diagnosed and treated by a professional. Our Camino a Casa Program (formerly START) addresses bipolar disorder and a wide range of other complex emotional issues. For more information visit our web site.


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