3Yr Old Behavior- Bipolar vs Acting Out

Updated on October 16, 2011
T.C. asks from San Diego, CA
15 answers

My 3yr old has not been listening or following directions!! Really being defiant!! Starting to hit, bite kids at preschool!! Is going through a lot of change! New big girl bed, new preschool 1.5 months ago & will become a big sister in 3 wks!! How do I know if this is typical 3 yr old behavior vs a mood disorder or early onset bipolar!! I'm VERY concerned, sad, frustrated & worried!! Anyone out there have a toddler with bipolar?? How did they get diagnosed? What were the behaviors??

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So What Happened?

So this is why I'm asking about Bipolar!! Yes mood swings- one hour complete angel the next hour absolute nightmare! Angers easily when told no or needs to stop an activity!! I could go on & on!! No fir the concerned it's not my hormones but expected a comment like that!! My daughter had to be removed from preschool today, just for the day, because she randomly unprovoked grabbed another child & bit her nose! Then spitbon 2 teachers then threw a shoe at an assistant!!! One of the employees at the preschool mentioned she has seen my daughter getting more aggressive though this is the first time I've heard of it! The entire school is aware if her changes in her life!! This behavior all started after being at the preschool for 2 wks! I contacted her previous day care provider/ preschool teacher- she said she never saw any behavior like this & only loving, caring behavior! The bipolar dx was not thrown around to give a dx, a concerned employee told me that my daughter reminded her if ger own daughter at this age!! When I asked why & what other behaviors etc she then told me that her daughter was dx at the age of 3 with bipolar! Took a very long time to dx it! So I'm praying the behavior is due to the changes & not a mood disorder! I have an aunt that has bipolar so I'm very familar with adults with bipolar! Just needing some reassurance regarding similar behaviors people have experienced!!! Thank you to everyone who has responded so far!! Looking forward to more input!!

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answers from Des Moines on

When in doubt get evaluated (if the evaluation is non invasive, and mental health ones are) HOWEVER it sounds like normal three year old going through changes to me. Usually children diagnosed have a VERY heavy family history-- MUTLIPLE close relatives with mental health issues....

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answers from Honolulu on

Major changes in her life.
And she is 3.
They don't have "coping skills" to manage their emotions or their lives or their stresses or anxieties.
Hence, they act out.
Wow.... new preschool 1.5 months ago, her Mommy changing and having a baby in 3 weeks, and new big girl bed... all at one time.
Kids this age, have no concept of "time" or that is was 1.5 months ago that she was in a new preschool. For example. To her, it is now.

She is her age... but with many 'stresses' in her life now.
She has no coping skills nor understanding, and emotions are not even fully-developed yet, in a 3 year old.
Thus, she is, being her age in the reactions in how she is reacting to... all of these things.
These things, even adults can have a hard time adjusting to.
So even more so, for a mere 3 year old.

3 is a hard age... developmentally. They are not even yet, fully mastered at emotions/social constructs/self-management or self-reliance. And they do not yet have, fully developed "impulse-control" yet, either.
So, they have a hard time.

4 is a harder age, in some respects.

Tell her Teacher... about all the family's changes right now. So that they understand. And about how this is all affecting her.

An eldest sibling... often needs MORE attention now, when a new baby is coming into play. AND once the new baby, comes home.

My daughter was about 4, when her baby brother was born.
I spent more time on her, while pregnant and once her baby brother came home. And I kept things for her, consistent and constant and JUST for her... to be special. I talked with her, OFTEN. So she could confide in me...and tell me her feelings. I told her it is OKAY... to feel anything she feels... that I am THERE for her. I did not want her to feel I would scold her for every little feeling... as I knew she had a TON to adjust to. I had to be her soft place to fall... and for her to know, that I understood SHE was just a little child herself... not all grown up, just because she was now an "older"sibling.
I had to be, her place she could let her hair down... and vent with and commiserate with. So that, she had an outlet... for any worry/feeling she had.
So we were still close, once her baby brother was born and came home.

She was an only child for about 4 years, before her baby brother was born.
I told my daughter, that SHE was my FIRST baby, and always will be.
That made her feel good. And it was the truth.

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answers from Chicago on

Just a heads up, I think it's just stress, but they still are not great at diagnosing bi polar in young children and it is not clear if it's bi polar or ADHD at this age they have simmilar "qualifiers". They are still experimenting with medications and "locking in" on an appropriate way to diagnose it. If it's too difficult to manage life then I suggest you have your pedi give you a referral to a developmental pedi and go from there. This will be a LOOOOONG process of diagnosis and trial and error good luck, I wish you well.
Mother of a 5yo w/ Adhd, Speech Delay and SPD

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answers from Hartford on

Three years old is typically far, far too young to diagnose mood disorders and it's very difficult to diagnose neurological disorders. Especially bi-polar. Bi-polar is harder to diagnose than Autism.

What you're describing sounds like typical behavior for a three year old who has had her entire routine and life uprooted and shifted and it sounds to me as if she's under a lot of stress. You said it yourself, she's going through a lot of change, and the changes are huge. HUGE. My biggest concern would be easing her fears and stabilizing her environment.

You're not trying to fix your child, but fixing her environment and in effect, fix how you're responding to her and parenting her right now. Keep things as consistent as possible for her, keep her routine as stable as you can, keep her discipline as consistent as possible, and control your own responses and keep them even and calm. Keep her bed time routine normal and regular and if you keep all of these things in place she should settle down.

It's especially important with a new baby coming. I would ease off the new baby talk for a while, and make sure you spend some special one on one time with her to reassure her that she's your special girl and still loved no matter what.

Your daughter is normal and fine. I guarantee it. But if she doesn't settle down, listen to your instincts and ask your pediatrician to point you toward someone who can help you get an evaluation for her. But I don't think she needs it.

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answers from Minneapolis on

What makes you think of bi-polar disorder at this young age? Does it run in your family?

A study conducted by the Papoloses indicated that more than 80% of children diagnosed with bipolar disorder come from families with a history of mood disorders and/or alcoholism on both sides of the family.

Here is a resource: The Bipolar Child: The Definitive and Reassuring Guide to Childhood's Most Misunderstood Disorder -- Third Edition by Demitri Papolos M.D., Janice Papolos

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answers from New York on

She is 3. First lots of changes in her life. At 3 they like to test, they do not
have impulse control, coping mechanisms are nil. So to me she sounds
like a perfectly normal 3 yo who is possibly having trouble adjusting to many new things. Bipolar no. Normal 3 yo yes. So relax and when the baby is
born I would just incorporate baby into household. Less you make of the
new one the better off she will be. I am not saying deny that the baby is
there, just do not make the new baby the focus of the day every day. Con-
gratulations and good luck. Just stay strong, be consistent and things will
be fine.

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answers from Anchorage on

sounds like a normal 3 year old experiencing big changes.

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answers from Cincinnati on

I have a 3 year old and this sounds pretty normal to me. 3 is pretty rough with their testing of the boundaries (not listening/following directions). I am lucky with the biting and hitting now....my guy went through a hitting phase at two also but at least he only hit me (not that is good, but I did not have to deal with him doing that at preschool - I am sorry you have to deal with that). I have several friends with children in daycare/pre-school, and we've all heard hitting stories about other kids, so it def. does happen at this age which is why I doubt it is a serious disorder. Clearly, you need to let her know you won't tolerate that aggressive behavior but I think she may be just acting out due to the changes that she is experiencing. Normally I would say give extra attention for awhile but that will be even harder for you all with the new baby coming. Good luck.

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answers from New York on

I was 23 when I was diagnosed bipolar and it is on both sides of the family w/my husband & I so when I questioned our pediatrician w/our oldest daughter he told me not to even mention that word unless it was mentioned by a teacher or someone at my daughter's school. People throw that diagnosis around way too easily. If were up to society, everyone would be bipolar. I love to shock people when I reveal that I too am bipolar. It's like a little club of it's own. I'm not mocking you, but it's like a cure all for every bad behavior. My best friend's son is bipolar and after seeing him act out, I hate that this illness even exists. He is only 12 yrs old and has been fighting these demons for 9 yrs. If you are really unsure of things, contact a pediatric psychiatrist and go from there. I wish you the best of luck, but the first thing they will ask is if there has been any change, which there has. Maybe you could speak w/your pediatrician about how to head some of these behaviors off and maybe some of it could be attributed to your hormones from your pregancy as well. Best of luck to you.

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answers from Rochester on

Oh my goodness! Of course this is (fairly) normal behavior for a child going through so much. Why is everyone so eager to jump on the psychological bandwagon and dope their children up? I am so upset about this issue right now after reading some STUPID article in some STUPID magazine (I believe it's called Parenting...HAH!) about how so many really young children, toddlers, etc, need psychotic drugs. Um, I'm sorry, no.

Establish as much routine as you can, offer some extra one on one time and encouragement, and enlist your little one in helping you and praise them for their help. Etc.

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answers from Washington DC on

The behavior started after 2 weeks at the preschool. New sister definitely an issue too. Though you have bipoloar in the family it's not you or your husband or the parents of either of you so don't be too quick to diagnose.

What really concerns me is that in neither the post nor the "what happened" addition do you mention what if anything you, your husband and the preschool are doing to help her and get her through these changes and prepare her, and yourselves, better for the huge change of the new baby. She VERY likely could be much worse when the baby comes -- the jealousy will have an actual person she can blame then. Please, even though you're really close to delivery, find yourself a child psychologist or professional counselor who can advise you very specificallly about ways to work with her immediately and when the baby comes. She is very angry and that's possibly going to worsen before it gets better. It may be typical childhood behavior with all the change -- I think it likely is -- but you can handle it well or handle it poorly and it will continue for longer. Get some professional advice, maybe even have her see a counselor who specializes in "play therapy" just for a period of time, to get her past the birth of the baby and the baby's early months. Her physical outbursts, the biting and hitting, are the most worrying part if you have an infant coming into the home. Why not take advantage of the professionals and get help for the normal but very difficult behavior, rather than leaping right to a life-long "she's bipolar" diagnosis.


answers from New York on

IF the problem started when she switched schools, could be a problem with the school. How is she at home? What is the preschool doing to help her control herself ? If they are not being very proactive then maybe you need to look into other preschools. 3 yr olds should be taught and guided more than punished and scolded.


answers from Chicago on

Drastic changes can cause unpleasant behavior. I wouldn't assume it's anything more than that. Get ready for more of the same when you bring the new baby home. My daughter was 3.5 when my middle child was born and it took her a long time to adjust-probably 6 months or more. Just try to be patient with her-yelling only exacerbates the negative behavior. Give her lots of praise and affection. Hang in there!



answers from Seattle on

From what you've written, she sounds like a totally normal 3yo with massive changes going on in her life.

But I'm not with her every day.

How do you know if this is normal Terrible 3's, 3yo under massive stress, or a psychological disorder? Take her to someone who SEES normal toddlers, toddlers under stress, and toddlers with disorders.

The adults (fully functioning, sucessful adults with great meds) I know who are bipolar as toddlers:

- laid down in the street so a car would hit them
- tried to fly or die out their bedroom windows
- drank drano or ate scissors
- attacked other children and adults with weapons (lamps, hammers, scissors, knives, etc.)
- jumped out of moving cars
- would run until their feet were bloody
- would run into walls to attempt to knock themselves out
- put plastic bags over their heads
- wouldn't talk or move for days
- wouldn't stop talking or moving for days
- would sleep for days on end
- would be awake for days on end

They were very clearly having manic, depressive, and mixed episodes. Bipolarity shares MANY points of similarity with ADHD (even in adults, sometimes the only way to get a true diagnosis is to give them stimulants and see if it kicks them into a mania, or calms them down... can't do that test in toddlers, because toddlers get hyper when they're over tired which LOOKS like manias, so it's hard to accurately diagnose the way one would with an adult), and MANY points of similarity with OTHER disorders. Also, many disorders are part and parcel with others. Both bipolar people and ADHD people have sensory issues. Which looks like SPD (but isn't) and the treatment is different. Both Bipolarity and ADHD tend to come with stubborn streaks that LOOK like ODD (but REALLY isn't... in fact, the treatment is almost polar opposite as what one would do for true ODD). THE TREATMENTS FOR EACH DISORDER ARE EXTREMELY DIFFERENT FROM EACH OTHER. Some disorders only meds and therapy can work for, other disorders therapy alone is the best option (no disorder is meds alone the best option, because there's no magic wand, and because dose levels need to change over time and in regard to changing situations).



answers from Denver on

Sounds just like my 3 year old daughter. Moody, hitting, crying, not at all herself. Honestly, I think 3 is a tough, tough age. It was for my son too but there is definitely more drama thrown in with my daughter. She too has some big changes going on..... a fairly new baby to compete with and big brother (her best pal) just left her to start kindergarten. In a sense her entire world has been shaken up and her sense of identity is off kilter...... She's trying to figure out so much! I feel sorry for my daughter - and yours.

I don't have a solution but I do know that they need to feel secure and understood. For me that means listening to my daughter, aknowledging her feelngs but keeping firm boundries ("I know you must be frustrated but you can not hit).

Hang in there.... Give her something of her own (we did ballet) and if you are still concerned have her evaluated through your school system. She sounds normal though.

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