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Hidden Symptoms of Childhood Bipolar Disorder

There is no set list of symptoms for childhood bipolar disorder. Each child is unique and not all children have the same symptoms. However, the most commonly seen symptoms for most children are listed. Childhood bipolar disorder often has a number of signs and/or symptoms that may go unnoticed by parents and undetected by doctors and therapists. These can and are considered to be hidden symptoms.

None of these traits (alone or in combination) necessarily means a diagnosis of pediatric bipolar disorder, but if many of them sound familiar in respect to your child, it may be time to visit with your child's doctor and investigate further.

Personal Story

Our son had many of the "hidden" symptoms, although at the time we did not think anything of them. For us, part of it was looking at each thing separately, and part of it was just thinking that this must be our "difficult" child.

Even as a baby, our son never slept well. He was up needing to eat every 90 minutes. If we could get him to take a nap, we were lucky if it was for more than 10-20 minutes at a time. At 3 years old, he still did not sleep through the night. He was not a morning child, and would want to do more sleeping in the morning hours and stay up late at night.

Another thing we noticed around age 2-3, was that he had to know exactly what was going on; where we were going; when we were doing something; and in what order we were doing it in. If we changed our routine, or did not tell him what was going on, he would become extremely agitated and irritable. At times, it was so difficult for him to handle changes and transitions, that he would suffer a meltdown - complete with screaming, kicking, and hitting - it didn't matter what we were doing - even if we were taking him to get an ice cream cone!

I used to laugh to myself when other parents would talk about separation anxiety and how their young child would sometimes be upset when getting dropped off at daycare. This was funny to me, because I would have loved it if my son sometimes got upset when I took him to daycare. I couldn't even go to the bathroom without my son getting upset, trying to follow me, and latching onto me. We would even see the separation anxiety at bedtime. If we laid him down in his own room, he wouldn't fall asleep; if we waited until after he fell asleep to put him in his room, he would instantly wake up - but, if we put him down in our room, nothing would wake him up!

We also noticed food cravings - as he got older, anything carbohydrate - potatoes, potato chips, bread, popcorn - were must haves. There were times where he "needed" one of these foods and that was all he wanted and no other food would work. If we didn't have one of these foods for him, he would get very irritable and cranky.

For us, looking at each of these things (and other things) separately, it did not look like too much out of the ordinary - but once we started looking at these symptoms along with the more obvious ones together, things started clicking and making sense that there must be something going on.

  • Surprises
    • Even good, happy ones (i.e., a "treat" or small gift) for no reason without any warning can be upsetting. Surprises are events with emotions that make a child with bipolar disorder feel not in control (when they already have little control of their life and emotions already).
  • Transitions
    • Going from one activity and/or event to another can sometimes be very difficult. Even repetitive activites (i.e., boy scouts or karate that occur the same time and same day every week) or letting your child know that dinner will be ready in a few minutes and they need to stop what they are doing and come to dinner can be extremely difficult to handle.
  • Grandiosity
    • Children with bipolar disorder almost always know more than everyone else, know better than adults, and tend to exaggerate. Often, if they are corrected, this can lead to a meltdown.
  • Morning Wake-up
    • Waking up can be difficult (if not almost impossible) even if your child has gotten a good night's sleep. Some children can take as much as an hour to wake up, start functioning, and get dressed for the day. If their mood is unstable, it can be even more difficult to get your child out of bed and will take much longer for them to be fully alert.
  • Temperature Issues
    • Children with bipolar disorder often feel that it is warmer than everyone else does and it is not uncommon for them to go out in the cold weather (even in the middle of winter) without a coat or many clothes. When the weather is hot, they can become extremely irritable. Children with bipolar disorder overheat very easily (regardless of the temperature or what they are doing) and parents will see that their cheeks have become flushed and/or red and their ears will also be bright red.
  • Impulsivity
    • Act first and think later seems to be their motto. Behavior is often irrational and may include actions such as trying to run away, threatening to open the door of a moving vehicle, and/or other risk-taking behaviors. At times, children with bipolar disorder can become angry enough that they will pick up a kitchen knife (or other sharp object), or something heavy and threaten harm to his/herself and/or others.
  • Separation Anxiety
    • This can occur even when your child is 8 or 9 (and sometimes even older). Often, children with bipolar disorder may not want to leave home, or even be in a room alone. Many children fear that something bad may happen if they are not with their mom, dad, and/or other family members. In some cases, they may need to sleep in or near their parents' room so they can sleep - sometimes a child with bipolar disorder may even become hysterical and/or violent if made to sleep alone.
  • Violent Nightmares
    • Children with bipolar disorder are often preoccupied with thoughts of death and violence. When they have a nightmare, they experience everything that is going on - they see it and they "feel" it - it is as though what they are dreaming is really happening. These nightmares are made worse because they do not wake up before the bad thing happens.
  • Food Cravings
    • Sometimes, children with bipolar disorder seem to eat non-stop. They typically crave high carbohydrate and salty foods. Many children will crave foods like chips, popcorn, potatoes, and crackers. If they cannot get the food that they are craving, they can become extremely irritable, unable to focus, and may even suffer a meltdown.
  • Seasonal Changes
    • Either epression is seen in the fall/winter months and more stable moods/hypomania experienced in the spring/summer months, or the opposite with very happy moods in the fall/winter and depressed moods in the spring/summer. Not only are changes in moods and stability seen when the seasons change, but sleep may also be different.
  • Hyper-Focus
    • Children with bipolar disorder have the ability to concentrate on their own interests to the exclusion of everyone and everything in the outside world.











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