Everyone knows that teens are crazy. Unpredictable, moody, and generally in the throes of one dramatic emotional episode or another, it can be tempting to label your teen as manic-depressive even if the shoe doesn’t fit. But how do you tell where normal teen hormonal fluctuations end and a true mental illness begins?
Learn the Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar disorder is characterized by alternating periods of mania and depression interspersed with regular behavior.
Many bipolar individuals experience periods of mania that include restlessness or little need for sleep, overly happy moods, distractibility and talkativeness, spending sprees, unrealistic beliefs in their abilities, drug abuse, and overtly aggressive or intrusive behavior. Most bipolar individuals deny that anything is wrong during periods of mania, despite the clear and abrupt change in personality or behavior they are exhibiting. Elevated mood or extreme irritability must occur with several other symptoms most of the day, almost every day for at least an entire week to be considered a typical episode of mania.
Depressive episodes for bipolar individuals often include symptoms of extreme sadness, anxiety, pessimism, loss of interest in activities they normally enjoy, changes in sleeping and eating habits, chronic pain not caused by a physical condition, fatigue or energy loss, and even suicidal tendencies or thoughts. Depressive episodes typically include multiple symptoms like these nearly every day for at least 2 weeks.
Track Your Teen’s Behavior Patterns
If you suspect that your teen’s behavior may be characteristic of bipolar disorder, consider keeping a log of behavior. Although regular and frequent yo-yoing of mood may be common in teenagers, periods of extreme and persistent combinations of the symptoms mentioned above are not normal or healthy.
Unfortunately, bipolar disorder often goes undiagnosed for many years because loved ones are uncertain whether the individual is just unpredictable or actually unbalanced. Bipolar disorder is caused by improper regulation of chemicals in the brain, and can often be controlled long-term through a combination of therapy and medication.
Clearly, certain symptoms merit immediate attention and intervention, such as drug abuse, uncontrolled impulse spending or wild behavior sprees, and suicidal thoughts or actions. Other symptoms may be more subtle and should be recorded in a daily journal (privately, of course!).
Write down the symptom, any unusual or extreme behaviors, any co-occurring symptoms, and the duration of the symptoms. Take note of any changes from happy to depressed moods and your teen’s responsiveness to other people.
Get Your Teen Evaluated by a Health Professional
Once you have a month of logged behavior (or if you notice any troubling symptoms), consult a health professional. Many schools offer free or very affordable counseling and evaluation sessions with a school psychologist. Your teen may be more receptive to discussing behavior and symptoms or undergoing a mental health evaluation if the parent seems unconnected with the experience.
If you prefer to go through a private health care provider, most family physicians can give a reliable initial consultation without teens suspecting a parental invasion into their privacy. Primary care doctors are familiar with assessing behavior and emotional health with standardized scales to identify mental imbalances.
Call the doctor to discuss the symptoms you have noticed or recorded in advance so that the physician knows about your concerns prior to evaluating your teen. If the family physician suspects an imbalance, you can expect to receive a referral to a mental health professional for further testing or review of symptoms, an initial counseling session, or an assignment to perform further documentation of your teen’s symptoms and behaviors.
Living with a Bipolar Teen
Parenting a teen with bipolar disorder can be very challenging, but the early years of diagnosis can be fundamental in shaping your child’s ability to manage the illness independently and successfully as an adult. Many families find individual counseling or family therapy useful to help every member of the family work through the stress and confusion involved with caring for a bipolar sibling or child.
Bipolar or not, your teen needs your support and understanding. A concerned eye and involvement in your teen’s life can make the difference between a healthy, well-adjusted teen and one who suffers in silence.
Katie Brind’Amour is a Certified Health Education Specialist and freelance health and wellness writer, dreaming of one day truly eating her way around the globe. In the meantime, she stays busy blogging about friendship and life in the not-so-fast lane while chipping away at her PhD in Health Services Management and Policy.