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Are You Sure It's ADHD?

With all the attention on attention deficit disorder, you might overlook differences in symptoms that indicate bipolar illness, or other mood disorders.

You child exhibits a high level of energy, reduced need for sleep, poor impulse control, and has trouble paying attention. He or she must have ADHD, right?

Not necessarily. These symptoms are common in children with ADHD, but it’s important to have your child evaluated by a professional. These same symptoms can also be present if your child is struggling with a mood disorder.

You will help your doctor diagnose and treat your child more effectively, if you can offer specific information about your child’s symptoms. For instance, does your child almost always exhibit the symptoms listed above? Or does s/he go through periods of being “down?” When s/he wakes, does it take just a few minutes to be fully alert, or does it take a couple of hours?

Both ADHD and mood disorders can result in destruction of property, but not in the same way. When your child breaks something, is it usually in anger or clumsiness? All children sometimes break things; children with ADHD often break things because of not paying attention; but the child with bipolar disorder usually break things in anger.

Children with ADD/ADHD get angry, too, of course, but their outbursts are different. When a child with ADHD tantrums, s/he usually calms down within 20 or 30 minutes, and an adult could imitate the amount of energy generated. But when a bipolar child has a tantrum, the amount of energy unleashed seems almost super-human. Most adults couldn’t imitate it for more than a few minutes, and the bipolar child may rage like that for hours.

The reasons for tantrums differ, too. A child with ADHD usually melts down because of overstimulation. The stimulation may be sensory (as in making transitions,) or affective (as in weathering insults from siblings.) Children with bipolar disorder may more often tantrum in response to limit setting, yet may actually seek out conflict with authority figures.

A child may have both ADD and bipolar illness, or neither. Many of the symptoms they share can also occur in a child suffering from posttraumatic stress or other anxiety disorder. Again, consultation with a professional is crucial to your child’s health and happiness, as well as your own peace of mind.

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