Thursday, December 9, 2010

Bipolar in kids? Probably not.

By Scott Benson, M.D.

The 5-year-old little girl had been referred to a therapist by her school because of her severe disruptive behavior. The almost daily tantrums had everyone concerned. She was uncooperative with the assessment and arrangements made for further evaluation. The therapist wrote a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

The patient was certainly reactive to any limits and her tantrums seemed like they would never end. But she slept well at night; she rarely had behavior problems with her grandparents who provided afterschool care.

After a few parent training sessions with the little girl and her parents her behavior control improved. But continued treatment was threatened when her dad tried to get her on his new health insurance. The diagnosis of bipolar got the application bumped by the computer and it took a lot of calls and several letters to get her on the policy so that her treatment could continue.

At times it seems we are a little too quick to throw a label on a child’s behavior, and bipolar disorder seems to be the most popular current label.

But new research at the October meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that children with some symptoms of mania probably do not have bipolar disorder.

Boris Birmaher, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh presented his group’s research. More than 2,000 children presenting to 10 different academic centers were included in the Longitudinal Assessment of Manic Symptoms (LAMS) study. 621 were found to have elevated symptoms of mania, but the full evaluation did not find sufficient symptoms for a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Most had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), others had another disruptive behavior disorder. Children who did have bipolar disorder have poor function and are likely to require treatment in hospitals.

"Kids with manic symptoms don't necessarily have bipolar disorder," he told Reuters Health. On the other hand, "Many children with bipolar disorder are not being correctly diagnosed."

The LAMS study which will follow these children for five years should provide direction for the assessment and treatment of children with severe behavior problems. In the mean time parents should insist on an adequate evaluation for children with severe behaviors.

The Parents' Medication Guide for Bipolar Disorder in Children & Adolescents is a great source of information for understanding the evaluation process and treatment options. Or visit for more information on bipolar disorder or mental health issues in children.

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