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When a child’s day brings tantrums, panicked mania or dark spells, he or she could be suffering from something much deeper than an attention-deficit problem. It could be juvenile-onset bipolar disorder, also called childhood bipolar disorder (or pediatric bipolar disorder), a relatively new psychological condition that may cause recurring mood swings between depression and hyperactivity.
Experts now believe that perhaps as many as one million American children live with some form of bipolar disorder, according to the Juvenile Bipolar Research Foundation. In most, the condition is marked by abrupt mood swings, periods of hyperactivity followed by lethargy, intense temper tantrums, frustration and defiant behavior.
Despite the wide-reaching effects, many sufferers do not receive the medical attention that could help them. Often, the disorder is misdiagnosed as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, a common behavioral problem characterized by distraction and impulsiveness.
Part of the problem is associated with the debate within the professional community whether pediatric bipolar disorder even exists. Researchers also have failed to agree upon a definition for the disorder, and the existing diagnostic manual offers no guidance in diagnosing bipolar disorder in children or teens (because it was previously thought to only be an adult disorder).
Professionals who are unaware of the disorder may not recognize its symptoms when they see it in a child or teen that comes to their office. Instead, they may see the hyperactivity a classic sign of attention deficit disorder, and diagnose accordingly. However, childhood bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme mood swings that children with attention deficit disorder don’t commonly have.
Children taking the wrong medication may be unintentionally set up for a lifetime of failure, said Michael Elium, director of special education for University of the Pacific.
“Quite frequently, they’ll be diagnosed as having ADHD because it looks like that’s what they’ve got,” Elium said. “The question is, how do we serve these children?”
William Kehoe, a professor of pharmacology practice and psychology at the University of the Pacific, said medication is often a key part of a child’s treatment. He noted that, while there are many medications available, the scientific community is still trying to figure out the effects they might have on a child’s developing cognition.