Because medical science is only beginning to recognize childhood bipolar disorder as a serious issue, few medications are approved to treat this juvenile condition. Parents and health providers must weigh the potential risks of using bipolar medications intended for adults against the dangers of leaving bipolar disorder in children untreated.
The consequences of not treating bipolar disorder are grave. Healthy Place (2010) reports that untreated bipolar disorder has a fatality rate of 18 percent, due to suicidal depression. Other complications include substance abuse, failure to thrive in school and impaired social functioning.
Treatment for Bipolar Disorder in Kids: Adult Medications
Mood stabilizers are the most commonly used type of bipolar disorder medication. Of these medications, lithium has the best success rate in adults, as it reduces mania symptoms and prevents severe emotional cycling.
Before using lithium to treat childhood bipolar disorder, it’s important to weigh the effects of long-term lithium use against its benefits. In adults, extended use of this mood stabilizer may require thyroid medication, and the drug can cause kidney damage in rare cases. Long-term effects of lithium on children are still unclear.
A number of anticonvulsants may also be helpful in treating bipolar disorder in children. For example, divalproex sodium (DepakoteÂ®), has been proven to prevent rapid mood cycles in cases of childhood bipolar disorder.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved only one anticonvulsant, tiagabine (GabitrilÂ®), as a treatment for bipolar in teenagers. This is also increasingly used to treat younger children with bipolar disorder.
Support when Treating Bipolar Disorder in Children
Psychotherapy and family therapy can teach children and families how to deal with symptoms of childhood bipolar disorder. In order to produce positive results, psychotherapy usually must be combined with medication.
Parents can learn coping strategies, relaxation techniques and skills to help the young patient deal with childhood bipolar disorder by:
- Encouraging activities that build on the child’s existing skills
- Learning good communication skills as a family
- Providing regular routines
- Removing objects that might become harmful during rages
- Teaching the child to anticipate and cope with stress.
Symptoms of bipolar disorder often require special handling in the classroom. Parents need to communicate with teachers, school counselors and health professionals to ensure that a child’s special needs are accommodated.
Bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness. The sooner the disorder is detected and treated, however, the better the prognosis. Early treatment for bipolar disorder can help children function better socially and academically.
Child and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation. (2004). Pediatric bipolar disorder: A brain illness. Retrieved August 3, 2010, from http://www.bpkids.org/learn/library/pediatric-bipolar-disorder-a-brain-illness.
Healthy Place. (2010). Medication and therapy for treating bipolar disorder in children. Retrieved August 3, 2010, from http://www.healthyplace.com/bipolar-disorder/children/medication-and-therapy-for-treating-bipolar-disorder-in-children/menu-id-67/.
National Institute of Mental Health. (2009). Bipolar disorder. Retrieved August 3, 2010, from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/bipolar-disorder/complete-index.shtml – pub8.