What Does a Bipolar Child Look Like?
Just like depression, mania manifests itself in problems with thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and physical changes. Problems with thoughts include what are described as racing thoughts. If a child is having racing thoughts, she might change topics of conversation rapidly or talk so fast that she doesn't even finish a thought. She may not be able to concentrate on anything and will seem to be easily distracted.
Behaviors that are associated with mania are described as grandiose. This means a child may have an overexaggerated self-confidence. What is wrong with this, you might ask? After all, isn't a good, solid self-esteem important? Of course it is, but in the course of mania, this self-esteem looks very different.
For instance, a child might have a healthy respect for heights. In a manic state, he might crawl onto the roof and think that he can either fly or won't be hurt if he jumps. It's a feeling of invincibility without any regard for the reality of a situation. It can also be something as simple as a child who all of a sudden thinks he can be the top athlete at school when he hasn't even tried out for a sport.
A child with bipolar disorder can also experience what is called a mixed episode. This means that instead of the cycling between depression and mania, these two states are occurring at the same time. It can be frightening to observe, but it needs immediate attention in order to protect a child from potentially harmful or dangerous behavior.
Behaviorally, a child can have a number of problems when manic. He may be extremely talkative, something that is totally out of character for him. His speech might be fast or pressured. When told to be quiet, it is nearly impossible for him to honor this request. He might be extraordinarily active and cannot sit still. This increase in physical activity can be productive to a point. But this attention to goal-directed behavior can become obsessive and he may not be able to pull his attention from what he is doing.
Often the hardest part of getting help for a child with bipolar disorder is the child's resistance. Many children say they love their highs and that these are the only times when they feel good. It makes sense they wouldn't want to give that up. It's easier to convince them that their moods are troublesome when they are depressed or not manic.
The scariest behaviors that children can exhibit during mania are high-risk behaviors. This can range from a child who thinks he can jump off a roof without getting hurt to pleasurable activities that can be harmful. He might experiment with drugs and alcohol or become hypersexual.
Another child may become preoccupied with cutting herself. Still another may spend all of her money and steal more from her mother's purse, often buying things she doesn't need or necessarily want. It's the impulsivity involved in these activities without any regard for the consequences that makes them dangerous.
Physical characteristics of mania include a lack of or a reduced need for sleep and excessive energy. For all of you exhausted parents, this sounds like a dream come true, doesn't it?
A manic child may sleep less than three hours a night, or not at all. Although he may report feeling rested, even as the amount of time he isn't sleeping increases, his mood becomes more irritable and impulsive.