Hypersexual Behavior in Children May be a Relatively Unknown Indicator of Bipolar Disorder

Known for its dramatic mood swings, bipolar disorder is increasingly becoming recognized as a life-disrupting but treatable condition. The disorder – marked by periods of depression alternated with abnormally high moods – makes personal relationships, the workplace and social settings difficult. One often misunderstood symptom, hypersexuality, remains a relatively unknown indicator of bipolar disorder in both adults and children and can even lead to accusations of sexual abuse.

A person with bipolar disorder can become unusually interested in sex, to the point of obsession. They can act on sexual compulsions through extra-marital relationships, pornography and other activities. During a bout of mania, a symptom of bipolar disorder marked by extreme energy or unnaturally high moods, some experts believe people may be especially likely to display hypersexual behavior and sexual compulsivity.

When it comes to children, however, the behaviors can be mistaken for signs of sexual abuse. Some children have been taken from their home situations when social service agency workers suspect they could be victims of sexual abuse or had been exposed to pornography. Research suggests these children could actually have bipolar disorder, and may display abnormal sexual actions during waves of mania.

A study funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health said that close to half (43 percent) of children who have mania also displayed hypersexual tendencies. Conducted in 2001 at Washington University in St. Louis, and published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology, the children studied were around 11 years old.

Lead researcher Barbara Geller, M.D., and associated team members reported that of young children with mania, about a third also showed hypersexual behaviors. Of children who had hit puberty, the number rose to around 60 percent of children also displaying hypersexual activity. The behavior often includes frequent and inappropriate masturbation.

While hypersexual behaviors or sexual compulsivity is not a key indicator of mania, it could be recognized as a clue to investigate the presence of bipolar disorder in children. Some children with disorders like autism, hormonal problems or developmental delays can also exhibit hypersexual behaviors.
Geller’s study, however, suggests that hypersexual activity is more common among children who have bipolar disorder than for other disorders, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Parents said children as young as two years old have been reported to display hyperactive sexuality and bouts of mania, which could be controlled with medication.

Bipolar disorder, and the mania and depression associated with it, can go undiagnosed for thousands of children and lead to significant problems later in life – including misdiagnoses as chronic depression. As researchers continue to explore the connections between hypersexual behaviors in children and bipolar disorder, the chance is greater that more children could begin effective treatment plans to keep the symptoms in check for a lifetime.