Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes severe mood swings. Children and adults with the condition, which is also called manic depression, can experience periods when they are very happy and active and then have periods when they are sad and depressed. The majority of cases of bipolar disorder develop when people are in their teens or early adulthood, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. When 4-year-olds and other children develop the condition, it is called early-onset bipolar disorder. Symptoms of the condition can often be different in young children than in teens and adults and can often be confused with those of conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
When a 4-year-old with bipolar disorder is experiencing a manic episode, or a period during which he is happy and joyful, he may act silly or in a way not consistent with his normal behavior, talk quickly about a variety of topics, have trouble sleeping yet not show any signs of being tired, display risky behavior, have difficulty focusing or staying on task and have a short temper. Examples of this type of behavior include laughing or giggling uncontrollably, even in situations where it is inappropriate, and engaging in dangerous behavior such as jumping off a roof because he thinks he cannot be hurt. These manic periods can last several days or even weeks, and these unusual behaviors that characterize the episodes are evident throughout the entire period.
After a manic episode, a child who is bipolar will then typically experience a depressive episode in which her behavior is different. The depressive episode may immediately follow a period of mania, or behavior may stabilize for a period of days or weeks. Signs of a depressive episode include seeming sad, experiencing crying spells, lack of interest in normal activities such as playing, complaining of headaches or other aches and pains, changes in eating patterns so he is eating too much or too little, being agitated or easily irritable and changes in sleep patterns. Similar to the manic episodes, depressive episodes can last weeks, with symptoms present throughout.
Children who are bipolar can also experience stable periods between manic and depressive episodes. During these times, their behaviors will normalize, and they will not experience symptoms of either mania or depression. In many cases, children in a stable period between episodes will act similarly to how they did before they developed bipolar disorder.