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What is bipolar disorder in children?

part 1 2 3

Early Signs

"When I was younger, I would hurt people. Like, I might like, jump on them, pull their hair, slap them or something." - Athena

"There was this one time when I was sitting next to my friend, and for no reason the principal of our school was like, 'No, you two move.' And I was in a really depressed time, I was like angry about something. So I just said, 'I f-ing hate you.'" - Eric

"I remember bits and pieces, just like, me being like suicidal at ages that no other kids were. I remember listening to stuff like Nirvana when I was a little kid, when all the other kids were listening to like pop music and stuff. I don't like that music, never have, never will." - Erin

Erin, 17, began show signs of bipolar behaviour at age three.
photo by Steve Schapiro

"She was 7 pounds 9 ounces. She was born the day before her due date and that was the nicest thing she's ever done for me," recalls Erin's mom, Sherry. She remembers the trouble beginning about the time Erin's younger brother was born. Erin was three.

"She just did not want a sibling," says Sherry. "And along with the kicking and hitting and screaming, because this new sibling was brought into the house, during his bris, she tried jumping out a window. But her rages would last for hours. She looked like a crazy - a wild person. And then as soon as she was finished, she was as calm as could be, like nothing happened."

"I had the day care center, that we were in at the time, ask me to remove her because of her behavior," says Athena's mom, Mary Rinaldo. "Other parents were starting to show concern about the safety of their children. She would go into a tantrum, and she would run out of the room and attempt to get out of the building."

Mary has been dealing with Athena's unpredictable outbursts from the terrible twos until today. Even during my brief visit to their home, one moment she was doing handstands on the floor; the next, she was crumpled in a corner and asking sternly when I planned to leave.

I told her she didn't have to stay. She responded, "It's just, I'm just getting a little bit mad because my mom is doing all the talking and she won't shut her mouth!"

"True," said Mary.

"I'm gonna smack you if you don't shut your mouth!" said Athena.

"I can remember stopping in the middle of the supermarket with a full cart of food, and Eric was beyond control, screaming his head off," says Conni Rancke, Eric's mom. "I picked him up out of the cart, left the food right in the middle of the market and drove home. There was nothing I could do to stop him from crying."

Conni adopted Eric days after his birth. The tantrums began a few years later, and got progressively worse. Today, they're much less common, but they still happen. Just last week, they argued over whether Eric could drive in a snowstorm.

Conni: There was some door slamming, wasn't there?

Eric: I did throw a trash can.

Conni: Oh, the plastic one you broke, you mean?

Eric: I didn't break it. When it hit the wall, the wall broke it.

Conni: [laughing] Oh, the wall broke it!

Conni now attributes that sort of behavior mostly to Eric's bipolar disorder, but it took years before she, or the other moms, realized the tantrums, the hitting, the running away were clinical red flags.

"One of the most insidious things about having a child with bipolar disorder, is that their symptoms don't look like illness," says Conni. "You get a kid who's acting out in class, or who's fighting, or is always getting in accidents. That doesn't look like illness to anybody. It didn't look like illness to us."

Continue to part 3