CU Professor's New Book Offers Tips To Parents Of Bipolar Teenagers

March 19, 2008

Parents of bipolar teenagers, whose extreme mood swings and severe irritability often cause significant trauma and conflict for their families, may find some helpful tips in a newly released book by University of Colorado at Boulder clinical psychology Professor David Miklowitz.

Miklowitz, who has pioneered a family-oriented treatment method of bipolar disorder for more than 25 years, recently released the book "The Bipolar Teen: What You Can Do to Help Your Child and Your Family." The book is Miklowitz's third on treating bipolar disorder. Boulder psychologist Elizabeth George co-authored the book.

"This book is for parents who have a bipolar teenager, whether or not they have been diagnosed yet," Miklowitz said. "The goal is to put the parents in the driver's seat and give them something they can use to get a handle on the disease."

In the book, Miklowitz provides parents with information about the disease's causes and symptoms, medications used to treat it, how to slow the development of new episodes and perhaps most importantly how to know if their child is truly bipolar.

Bipolar disorder affects nearly 6 million Americans, and about 2 percent of the nation's teens are thought to be bipolar. Diagnosing the disorder in teens can be difficult, Miklowitz said, because its symptoms mirror normal teen angst.

"It can be very difficult to tell what is typical teenage behavior and what is bipolar teenager behavior," Miklowitz said. "Three main features of being a teenager are mood instability, family conflict and risk-taking. But if you're bipolar, all three of these things are exaggerated and cause severe impairment."

The most common symptom of bipolar disorder in teens is severe irritability, according to Miklowitz. But the irritability that bipolar teens exhibit isn't run-of-the-mill moodiness.

"The mood swings of typical teenagers don't get them thrown out of a classroom, in trouble with the police or shunned by their friends," Miklowitz said. "Likewise, suicidal thoughts are common among healthy teenagers, but in bipolar teens, self-destructive thoughts become so severe and frequent that hospitalization may be necessary."

Early onset of the disease can be associated with more risk of suicide and more resistance to treatment, which underscores the importance of early intervention.

"If you suspect your teen may be bipolar, you need to get him or her evaluated by a psychologist or psychiatrist who knows childhood mood disorders," Miklowitz said. "Any treatment should involve both medication and therapy, particularly therapy oriented around learning to manage one's painful emotions."

Miklowitz is currently working on two separate federally funded studies involving adolescents and bipolar disorder. One study examines whether family-focused treatment is effective when combined with medication for adolescents diagnosed with the disease. The second examines whether early treatment of children at high risk of developing bipolar disorder can head off the disease's effects before severely disrupting people's lives.

"The Bipolar Teen: What You Can Do to Help Your Child and Your Family" is available in local bookstores. For more information about Miklowitz's research visit psych.colorado.edu/~clinical/miklowitz/.

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