Does My Teenager Have Bipolar Disorder?

Last Updated: 6 Aug 2018

How can you tell the difference between typical teenager behavior and behavior that might be caused by bipolar disorder?

By Julie A. Fast


The majority of bipolar disorder symptoms start in the teenage years.  However, in my experience, determining the difference between typical teenage behavior and behavior that is a result of bipolar disorder is difficult for even the most experienced professionals.

In order to help parents and health care professionals, who suspect a teenager has bipolar disorder, I had to figure out how a person without bipolar disorder could differentiate between the typical (and often over the top) emotional behavior of a teen and the behavior of a teenager who needs a mental health diagnosis, as well as medical help.  As always happens with my work, I started making lists.  After listing all of the signs of my own teenage symptoms and then adding in the symptoms from the parents who share the stories of their teenagers who were eventually diagnosed, I came up with a simple explanation on how to make a balanced decision regarding the teen’s behavior.

A Surprising Result

The differences I found were not obvious emotional changes or overly odd behaviors. Instead, the emotions and behaviors were the same and the differences were seen in the escalation and outcome of the emotions.  If you’re a parent of a teenager you think might have bipolar disorder, think about your own teenage behavior, the behavior of other teens in your child’s life and the typical teenage behavior portrayed on television and in movies.  This is a foundation list for figuring out if your teenager has bipolar disorder symptoms. Here’s how it works.  The following is my original list of typical teen behaviors. I then thought of how these behaviors escalate into the typical bipolar disorder behaviors.

Typical Teenager                          Escalation              Teenager with Bipolar Disorder

Frustrating communication                                                Impossible communication

Lack of focus                                                                           True inability to focus

Low self esteem                                                                      Hopeless about the future

Talks of doing something drastic                                     Does something drastic

Threatens                                                                                Completes threat/harms

Angry at siblings                                                                   Cruel to siblings

Lonely  and socially awkward                                           Empty and hopeless about the future

Sexual awakening                                                                Aggressive sexual pursuit

Easily swayed                                                                         Unable to make a decision

Confused sense of self                                                          Distorted sense of self

Able to calm down after a tantrum                                   Doesn’t or can’t calm down for hours, days or weeks

Individualistic                                                                        Defiant

Argumentative                                                                       Assault

Hides in room                                                                        Runs away from home/disappears

Sleeps in late                                                                          Sleeps all day- sometimes for weeks

Stays up late                                                                            Stays up all night, sometimes for days

Rarely wants advice                                                             Aggressively refuses to listen

Drug/alcohol experimentation                                        Addiction behaviors at a very young age

Moody                                                                                     Over the top and often inexplicble  reactions

Immature                                                                                Reckless/dangerous choices

Experimental                                                                         Risky

Quiet                                                                                       Unable to talk

School classes are difficult                                               Actual trouble reading

Sad                                                                                          Suicidal

Concerned about the future                                             Obsessed, worried and scared about the future

Happy and active                                                               Unable to calm down


As you can see, this list could go on and on…What matters is the list you create for your child. All of my work with parents involves lists. It’s the only way to get a clear pictures of what is happening in a teenager’s life.

Understanding the differences between the escalation and outcome of the emotions most teenagers go through can help you answer the question “Does My Teenager Have Bipolar Disorder?” and it gives you a way to list out what you’re seeing that causes concern. You can then take this list to a health care professional and ask for help.




PS: My first bipolar disorder episode was at age 17 in 1980. I was on a trip to Europe with only one person who knew me well. To others who had just met me, I was a wildly outgoing, fun, intelligent, loud, exciting and super social. To the friend I ignored for most of the trip, I was risky, overly talkative even for a talkative person, selfish and unaware of her feelings. I looked normal on the outside, but she saw the difference and made it clear I was not myself.  This was my first euphoric, hypomanic episode.  It wasn’t about my behaviors- it was about the escalation and outcome of my behaviors!


code: bphopekids 

About the author
Julie A. Fast is the author of Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder, Get It Done When You’re Depressed, and The Health Cards Treatment System for Bipolar Disorder. She is a columnist and blogger for bp Magazine, and she won the Mental Health America journalism award for the best mental health column in the US. Julie was also the recipient of the Eli Lilly Reintegration Achievement Award for her work in bipolar disorder advocacy. Julie is a bipolar disorder expert for ShareCare, a site created by Dr. Oz and Oprah. Julie is CEU certified and regularly trains health care professionals, including psychiatric residents, social workers, therapists, and general practitioners, on bipolar disorder management skills. She was the original consultant for Claire Danes for the show Homeland and is on the mental health expert registry for People magazine. She works as a coach for parents and partners of people with bipolar disorder. Julie is currently writing a book for children called "Hortensia and the Magical Brain: Poems for Kids with Bipolar, Anxiety, Psychosis, and Depression." You can find more about her work at and
  1. I can’t decide if my daughter is being a typical teenager or if she is bipolar. She can have days where she doesn’t want to or can’t do anything. Nights that she can’t sleep. Her ex friends have said she has been telling lies, (typically about being pregnant or losing a baby or that she has been thrown out. She decided to leave home 3 days ago ) she says she hasn’t and that they are the ones who are lying. She will go days without eating and others when she binges and eats everything in site. I have also found letters she has written saying sorry that she killed herself but she just couldn’t take any more. Can any one help me with this ?

    1. i can relate to every single part of what you have written as this is the exact same as my daughter. So far im banging my head against a wall trying to get help and where to go?. Did you manage to find anything out in regard to if this was bipolar or not

  2. No. The feelings you have of anetxiy combined with depressionare not true bi-polar disorder.Although the mood swings may be severe, just the fact that you recognize them makes you alright.Someone with bi-polar disease is not likely to recognize what is going on.Remember, really crazy people don’t think they are crazy.If you are seriously concerned, you need to see a doctor.

  3. How can I truly tell if my daughter is Bipolar? She is always in an irritated mood. Anger, explosive sometimes, uncontrollable crying crying spells. Antidepressants made her worse. Damaged so many relationships. Now on Lamictal, good to go. Thank-God!!

    1. Hi Heather, after years on a roller coaster ride with our daughter; she too has been diagnosed and on lamictal and is able to live her life. She still has episodes but has been able to develop a support system that works, this helps. I’m very selfish though. I’m so relieved and happy she is doing well and I miss having a relationship with her. It’s my hope that it will happen though. I’m educating myself I love her dearly and want to be her mom.

      1. Hi my name is mallesha lindsay i have been noticing all these signs in me but yet still my parents dont care im majorly very suicidal and the cant really see me and understand me.

  4. I suspected my daughter had bipolar when she was 15. The psychs kept treating her for depression and she didn’t like how they made her feel, would stop taking them, and crash. She attempted suicide 4 times, but even then I was told they wouldn’t diagnose BP until she was “older”, because of those crazy teenage hormones. She was finally diagnosed with BPII in her early 20’s, but not before experiencing the multiple risky behaviors associated with BP, losing multiple jobs after only a few months, etc How much hurt and other damage might have been avoided (or at least better-managed) with an earlier diagnosis?

  5. Hello Wendy, Its hard to see what is happening right under your nose. It’s much easier for someone like me to come in and see the patterns after they have happened. Most parents are hardwired to protect their children- this means they spend a lot of time trying to figure out what is going on while in the middle of the hard to explain behavior. So much energy is used to keep the child on track in school that it’s rare for parents to sit back and make a chart to see what is really happening. I suggest that any parent who thinks there is a problem make a list of behaviors and compare them to what is considered typical behavior. Your list will look different than this one in terms of actions, but it will be similar in terms of outcome. When I help clients do this, we come up with dozens of very obvious bipolar disorder symptoms very quickly! Trying to do this without writing it down is rather impossible. I’m glad you were able to get help for your son. And yes, the answer is education in schools and ESPECIALLY FOR GPs in the health care system! Julie

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