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The Difference Between Bipolar Disorder and ADHD – What Every Mom Should Know!

Though somewhat related, Bipolar Disorder and ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are two very distinct conditions. In fact because children with Bipolar Disorder often suffer with ADHD as well, until recently children with Bipolar Disorder were often misdiagnosed with ADHD and did not receive the proper treatment.

Attention Deficit Disorder is a group of conditions, a learning disability that can be caused by any number of factors, while Bipolar Disorder is a specific neurological disease. However, historically, if even medical professionals had trouble distinguishing Bipolar Disorder from ADHD, how can you as a parent be expected to do so? Well you should not be expected to make that determination on your own; and because of the difficulty — a proper diagnosis should only be made through an evaluation by a qualified professional.

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There are however some helpful signs that can assist you if you suspect that the problem may be more serous then ADHD, and perhaps Bipolar Disorder.

How to Distinguish Bipolar Disorder from Hyperactivity

Both Hyperactive and Bipolar Children will be distracted, irritable and have difficulty concentrating, but only the Bipolar Child will exhibit:

  • Elated behaviors like uncontrollable or inappropriate bursts of laughter, or seeming to be deliriously happy for no apparent reason.
  • Grandiose behaviors, like feeling that they are smarter then you or their teachers, or have other “super powers”.
  • Bipolar children will talk incessantly, and jump rapid fire from one topic to another.
  • A significant decrease in the need for sleep is often seen in bipolar illness. Bipolar children may sleep as little as 4-6 hours with no signs of tiredness the next day. These patterns are typical of Bipolar Disorder but rarely occur in ADHD.

If you suspect that your child may be bipolar it is important to have him or her properly evaluated by a specialist so that ADHD is ruled out, not only so you know exactly what you are dealing with, but because some of the medications prescribed for ADHD may actually worsen the symptoms of manic depression.

Bipolar Disorder in Kids and Learning

Bipolar Disorder definitely affects your child’s ability to learn and his or her performance at school.  As we said, the bipolar child can have ADHD, and usually presents with other learning disabilities as well. In addition to that, recent brain imaging studies prove that there are biological differences in the areas of the brain relating to cognition and learning in children with bipolar disorder.

According to the Child & Adolescent Bipolar Foundation (CABF) “The disorder affects learning in a number of ways, ranging from difficulties with sleep, energy, school attendance, concentration, executive function, and cognition. Side effects from medications can affect the child’s learning and energy.  Moreover, while many of these children are uncommonly bright or creative, they often have co-occurring learning disabilities.”

Even when moods are stable learning can be difficult for a bipolar child because of their reduced capacity to pay attention, retain and recall information and employ critical thinking.  In addition the child with bipolar disorder can be alternatively talkative or very withdrawn making it difficult to function in a classroom environment. On top of that the very medications used to control those mood swings can make the child drowsy and have memory difficulties.

Yet despite these challenges according to Educating the Child With Bipolar Disorder, an informative brochure published by the CABF “…a student with bipolar disorder can succeed in the classroom with the right supports and accommodations.”

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