Mood Stabilizers for Child and Teen Bipolar Disorder

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Mood Stabilizers for Child and Teen Bipolar Disorder


Generic NameBrand Name
lithiumCarbolith, Lithane

The above medicines are taken as tablets or capsules (orally).

Generic NameBrand Name
carbamazepine Tegretol
divalproex sodiumEpival ECT

These medicines are available in syrup, tablet, capsule, and chewable tablet forms.

How It Works

Mood stabilizers help even out the mood swings linked with bipolar disorder by balancing brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that control emotions.

Divalproex, carbamazepine, and lamotrigine are anticonvulsants that doctors also use to treat seizures. It is not known exactly how these medicines affect mood. But experts think they may slow down certain electrical impulses in the brain that are linked to seizures and mood problems.

Why It Is Used

Mood stabilizers may be used to treat sudden manic episodes. Continued use of mood stabilizers can eliminate extreme mood swings of depression and mania and improve your child's quality of life. Your doctor may prescribe mood stabilizers with other medicines (such as antipsychotics) for more effective reduction of mood swings.

How Well It Works

Mood stabilizers have been well studied in adults, but there are currently few studies in children.


Limited research shows that lithium is safe and may be effective in reducing symptoms of bipolar disorder in children.1


Studies of divalproex show it to be promising as a safe and effective treatment for children with mania due to bipolar disorder.1


Carbamazepine is an anticonvulsant medicine which may be effective as a mood stabilizer in children and teens with bipolar disorder.2


Research shows that lamotrigine is effective in treating both depression and mania in adults with bipolar disorder.3

Side Effects


Side effects of lithium may include:

  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
  • Trembling.
  • Increased thirst and increased need to urinate.
  • Weight gain in the first few months of use.
  • Drowsiness.
  • A metallic taste in the mouth.
  • Bedwetting (enuresis).
  • Acne.
  • Abnormal kidney function.
  • Abnormal function of the thyroid or parathyroid gland.
  • Increased number of white blood cells (not caused by an infection).

More serious side effects of lithium can include blacking out, slurred speech, and changes in heart rhythm or a heart block (problems with the heart's electrical signals that cause an abnormal heartbeat).


Divalproex can cause side effects such as nausea, trouble sleeping, or dizziness. Other, more serious side effects are rare but can occur and include liver function problems, pancreatitis, or a severe allergic reaction. Call your doctor if your child is taking divalproex and experiences shaking, hair loss, drowsiness or weakness, a depressive episode or other psychiatric changes, or if your child complains of headache.


Side effects of carbamazepine can include dry mouth and throat, constipation, problems urinating, dizziness or drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, or loss of appetite. Rare but serious side effects include the risk of problems producing enough bone marrow, liver inflammation, and, most seriously, Stevens-Johnson syndrome, which causes sores on the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose, genitals, and eyelids and which can be fatal.


Lamotrigine was well tolerated in initial studies. Some side effects occurred, including headaches, sleepiness, weight gain, and minor skin rashes that developed when people stopped taking the medicine. Serious negative side effects were uncommon. Rare side effects can include dizziness, blurred vision, nausea and vomiting, liver function problems and, most seriously, Stevens-Johnson syndrome.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a warning on anticonvulsants and the risk of suicide and suicidal thoughts. The FDA does not recommend that people stop using these medicines. Instead, people who take anticonvulsant medicine should be watched closely for warning signs of suicide. People who take anticonvulsant medicine and who are worried about this side effect should talk to a doctor.

See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug Reference is not available in all systems.)

What To Think About

While these medicines have been well studied for use in adults, there are no long-term studies that confirm the effectiveness and safety of mood stabilizers in children and adolescents with bipolar disorder. Be sure to use these medicines exactly as your doctor prescribes them. If your child has intolerable side effects with any of these medicines, call your doctor immediately.

Carbamazepine can interact with other medicines, and a doctor must carefully monitor your child's health when your child takes this medicine.4 Your child should not take carbamazepine along with monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) because serious, sometimes fatal, reactions can occur.

Do not stop taking these medicines suddenly. Your child should taper off of these drugs slowly, with guidance from a doctor, to avoid negative and serious side effects.

High blood levels of lithium carbonate can be life-threatening. At first your child will need to have his or her blood checked about every 2 weeks to measure the amount of lithium in the blood and to monitor kidney function. Make sure your child's doctor knows about all the medicines your child is taking. Some medicines can raise or lower the effectiveness of lithium. Some non-prescription medicines, such as ibuprofen (for example, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve, for example), can increase lithium levels in some people.

Regular blood tests are also needed to monitor the amount of carbamazepine and divalproex in the blood. And your doctor will need to test your child's liver periodically while he or she is taking these medicines.

Mood stabilizers may interact negatively with other medicines and should not be taken with some antibiotics or medicines that treat indigestion, seizures, or heart problems.

Mood stabilizers may increase the chance of birth defects. Be sure to tell the doctor if your child becomes pregnant.

Complete the new medication information form (PDF) (What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this medication.



  1. Carlson GA, Meyer SE (2009). Early-onset bipolar disorder. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 2, pp. 3663–3670. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  2. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2007). Practice parameter for the assessment and treatment of children and adolescents with bipolar disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 46(1): 107–125. Available online:
  3. American Psychiatric Association (2002). Practice guideline for the treatment of patients with bipolar disorder (revision). American Journal of Psychiatry, 159(4, Suppl): 1–50.
  4. Keck PE, et al. (2004). Expert consensus guideline series: Treatment of bipolar disorder 2004. Postgraduate Medicine Special Report. Available online:


By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer John Pope, MD - Pediatrics
Primary Medical Reviewer Donald Sproule, MD, CM, CCFP, FCFP - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer David A. Axelson, MD - Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Last Revised June 7, 2011

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