What Is The Difference Between ADHD And Bipolar?

Reviewed by Whitney White, MS CMHC, NCC., LPC

Published 07/04/2022

People who have ADHD or Bipolar Disorder may display similarities in behavior or mood from time to time. Often, parents wonder if their children could have more than just ADHD and experience Bipolar Disorder. While there are times when there are concerns and causes for your questioning, most people diagnosed with ADHD do not later develop Bipolar Disorder.

What Is ADHD?

ADHD is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and occurs when a child has inattentiveness, is hyperactive, or has a combination of the two. When a child cannot sit still, has problems staying focused on chores or school assignments, is disorganized, or struggles with multi-step problems or directions, they may have ADHD.

What some do not realize is that with ADHD comes ADHD mood swings. Many children often become frustrated over forgetting things at school or home, not understanding how to do something, or following directions. This can result in mood swings that resemble violent outbursts or mood swings.

Anxiety, depression, executive functioning disorder, and sensory processing disorder are just a few comorbidities of ADHD. This often calls into question, does my child have ADHD or Bipolar Disorder?

What Is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar Disorder is a mood or brain disorder that affects 2.8% of adults in the United States. There are three types of Bipolar Disorders: Bipolar 1, Bipolar 2, and Cyclothymia. Typical Bipolar patients experience depression that lasts from a couple to several weeks, manic episodes (a period of extreme happiness) that can last for days or weeks, or a combination of the two, on and off, throughout the year. They may also experience hypomania, which is a less severe form of mania. Patients may be happier and have more energy than normal, but they do not realize it; people around those with hypomania (and especially mania) notice a difference, however.

Bipolar 1 is defined as when a patient has at least one manic episode. Mania is defined as a period of extreme happiness, similar to a high, where the person may go on a spending spree, have spontaneous alcohol or drug binges, have multiple sexual partners, or stay up for days working on a project. Patients may experience hypomania, or major depressive episodes, before and after a manic episode.

Bipolar 2 is more common in women and involves having at least one major depressive episode that lasts at least two weeks and at least one hypomanic episode that lasts, on average, four days. Bipolar 2 patients tend to be depressed more than they are manic and are at risk for self-harming behavior during these episodes.

Cyclothymia patients have shorter periods of hypomania and depression. They typically only have a month or two during the year where they are not in a hypomania or depressive cycle, and their mood is stable.

How Can I Tell The Difference Between Bipolar And ADHD?

While ADHD mood swings may mimic Bipolar Disorder, they are typically shorter periods of time, such as a couple of hours rather than a couple of weeks. While Bipolar patients can cycle quickly in and out of hypomania and depression, rarely does it happen within a single day.

If you are unsure whether you have ADHD or Bipolar Disorder, consult your doctor and discuss your symptoms. Since depression is a comorbidity of ADHD, you can develop both ADHD and depression rather than Bipolar Disorder. Only a doctor can differentiate the two disorders.

Is Bipolar Disorder Common In Children?

Diagnosing Bipolar Disorder in children is rare. Typically, a doctor will diagnose a patient with anxiety, depression, and ADHD and watch a child as they age through puberty. After puberty, when the teenager starts to have stability in their hormones, a physician or psychologist may diagnose Bipolar Disorder if the symptomology makes sense.

Parents should note their child's mental health patterns if they are concerned their child may have Bipolar Disorder. If they have periods of time where they are quite excited and in an overly good mood, or hyperactive, and that is followed by a period of depression, it could be a sign that they may have Bipolar Disorder. These dramatic mood changes are not normal after puberty but may be hard to distinguish prior.

If your child has extreme moods that are uncommon in your other children or their school mates, they could be experiencing hypomania episodes. When comparing to ADHD vs Bipolar hypomania in children, it looks nearly identical. The biggest differentiating factor is hypomania, followed by periods of extended depression. This does not mean that your child is sad for a day because they failed their math test or are down because they have trouble with a friend at school. When a child is showing signs of Bipolar depression, they may not want to get out of bed, say they have no reason to get up, lay around the house with no ambitions of seeing friends or going outside to play, or say things like they would better off not being here. If your child is having this behavior and lasts for several days, they could either have depression or show signs of Bipolar. It is also possible that they have both Bipolar and ADHD, although once a patient is diagnosed with a mood disorder such as Bipolar, the ADHD diagnosis is no longer viewed as strongly. Again, it is essential to start documenting patterns as you will want this information when you speak to your child's doctor.

What Are The Causes Of Bipolar And ADHD?

The causes of Bipolar and ADHD are not clear. While a family history may have some part in both, a brain chemistry imbalance is more likely the culprit. ADHD has been linked to a deficit in dopamine as well as an Executive Function Disorder in the frontal lobe of the brain. If the area that controls a person's executive functioning skills is underdeveloped in the brain, ADHD is more likely to occur. While medications, sleep deprivation, alcohol use, or illegal substance abuse can trigger a manic or depressive cycle, these are not the causes of Bipolar Disorder. Many patients with Bipolar attempt to regulate their moods themselves, known as self-medicating, by abusing drugs and alcohol.

It is important to recognize that ADHD and Bipolar Disorder cannot be prevented. If you are diagnosed with one of these disorders, it is essential to learn about your condition and understand it. Only then can you be able to begin to manage it.

Seeing a psychologist or therapist can be one of your best steps after a diagnosis. These mental health care professionals can help you to understand your Disorder and provide you with the tools to best manage it. If you are having a depressive episode, it is important to talk to your therapist to identify if something triggered it and eventually avoid potential triggers in the future.

While mania and hypomania cannot be avoided, there are things that can be done to better control it and shorten the length of the cycle. However, most people do not want to end their manic episodes; they feel really good and enjoy the feeling of mania. This can be dangerous because if excessive spending, alcohol use, or drug use takes place during manic episodes, there can be significant repercussions in the long run.

The goal with Bipolar is to reduce the number of high and low days and aim for a happy middle ground. The same is true with ADHD. The more you can help your child reduce meltdowns, the more comfortable everyone in the house will be overall. Most importantly, your child will be happier and healthier.

While ADHD and Bipolar Disorder can have similarities, they are different mental health diagnoses. You can start to determine which you may be managing by taking our ADHD assessment test. Care must be taken not to ignore symptoms and reduce the number of high and low days that the patient experiences. Discussing your concerns with a trusted health care professional or mental health care provider will help you navigate your way towards a diagnosis and the best treatment plan possible.