Does My Child Have Bipolar or ADHD? How to Tell the Difference

When considering whether your child has bipolar disorder or ADHD, you must know the differences and similarities in the illnesses. Learn about bipolar vs. ADHD.Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and bipolar disorder can look similar in children and so it can be hard to know if your child has ADHD or bipolar disorder (also known as pediatric bipolar disorder or early-onset bipolar disorder). On top of that, many children actually have both disorders and that can complicate matters further. Additionally, disorders such as disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD) and conduct disorder can also be hard to differentiate from pediatric bipolar disorder. The following outlines child bipolar vs. ADHD symptoms.

Child Bipolar vs. ADHD Characteristic Diagnostic Behaviors

The following table outlines the characteristics that help diagnose bipolar disorder or ADHD in a child and how they present themselves.

Behavior  Bipolar Disorder  ADHD 
Self-esteem Inflated Inflated or deflated
Pleasure Euphoric in mania/hypomania and suffering and depressed during depression Often depressed or in neither an inflated mood nor a depressed mood
Attention Distractible Distractible
Hyperactivity Goal-directed Unproductive
Sleep Episodic disturbances – such as decreased need in mania/hypomania Chronic poor sleep; often late bedtimes
Speech Pressured and/or rapid in mania/hypomania and slowed during depression Often rapid; may be pressured
Impulsivity Externally driven/reactive Internally driven
Social skills Often good Often poor
Academic performance Often good Often poor
Psychomotor (movement and mental activity) activity Agitated in mania/hypomania/mixed states; slowed in depressed states Chronically agitated

It’s also important to know that children who are initially diagnosed with ADHD may eventually be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Children with severe ADHD, unstable emotions and aggression are often the ones who later develop bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder and ADHD also commonly occur together. Some studies have shown that in children with bipolar symptoms, as many as 90% also have ADHD. That percentage drops as age increases.

Child Bipolar vs ADHD: The Most Important Thing to Consider

The above shows the differences and similarities between pediatric bipolar disorder and ADHD. The most important thing to note is that when a child has bipolar disorder, behaviors and moods are episodic and behaviors are driven by mood versus in ADHD where behaviors are most consistent.

What to Do If You Think Your Child Has ADHD or Bipolar Disorder

Whether your child has ADHD or bipolar disorder, it’s critical to know that either, or both, disorders can be treated and children do much better with treatment than without.

Finally, it’s important not to diagnose your child on your own. Only a qualified mental healthcare professional like a psychiatrist can diagnose a child. When looking for a psychiatrist, it’s ideal to find someone who specializes in childhood mental illness as he or she can likely diagnose accurately and help the most.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2021, December 28). Does My Child Have Bipolar or ADHD? How to Tell the Difference, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 15 from

Last Updated: January 7, 2022

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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