“Because I was looking for something, I thought there was something.” The psychiatrist agreed that John was anxious, but said it was understandable given that his grandmother, to whom he was extremely close, had been diagnosed with cancer and that his mother was periodically hospitalized for bipolar episodes. He is a member of his high school football team, participates in school musicals and shows more than a passing interest in girls.
Still, Donna admits that the possibility of John developing a mood disorder “is always in the back of my mind.” Child rearing can be a challenging, emotional process for anyone.
The fact that bipolar is a multi-gene disorder further complicates diagnosis, says Dr. “For argument’s sake, let’s say bipolar disorder is made up of 15 different genes,” she says.
“If someone has two of these genes, are they bipolar? They may have a little bipolar and a bunch of other stuff.” Susan Resko is executive director of the Children and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation (CABF), a parent-led non-profit, based in Illinois, which offers support, information and advocacy to families raising children diagnosed with, or at risk for, pediatric bipolar disorder. Resko questions whether pediatric bipolar is currently over-diagnosed.
“They do have an increased risk, but most won’t be bipolar.” And other experts fear that many children are being misdiagnosed. Carlson, MD, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Stony Brook University Medical Center, for example, says that many children who have problems regulating their emotions or who suffer from ADHD are now being labeled bipolar.
“There are a million different reasons” children have trouble regulating their mood, she says.
I don’t know.” All parents want to keep their children safe.
The trick, say experts, is to be watchful, without being overly wary. Leibenluft urges parents to treat each child as an individual and assume all is well until you have reason to believe otherwise.A 1997 analysis of 17 prior studies also suggests there are reasons to be vigilant.The 10-year-old, but still cited, research study found that bipolar offspring had only a 2.7 percent chance of being diagnosed with bipolar.“My family tried to tell me to relax.” Although John did well in school, he was a highly sensitive child.“He could be really happy and having fun, and then be sad the next minute,” says Donna, a single parent.“My major objection is that when people give you a conditioned response that it’s bipolar, it shuts off minds as to what else might be causing the behavior and I don’t think that’s in anyone’s best interest.” The potential dangers of misdiagnosis are clear: prescribing the wrong medications unnecessarily exposes a child to powerful medications that carry side effects.