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
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
Quiet Unable to talk
School classes are difficult Actual trouble reading
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!
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 JulieFast.com and BipolarHappens.com.
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