Evidence-Based Reviews

Agitation in children and adolescents: Diagnostic and treatment considerations

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Hallucinations/psychosis. Hallucinations (whether from psychiatric or medical causes) are significantly associated with agitation.9 In particular, auditory command hallucinations have been linked to agitation. Command hallucinations in children and adolescents may be secondary to early-onset schizophrenia; however, this diagnosis is rare.10 Hallucinations can also be an adverse effect of amphetamine-based stimulant medications in children and adolescents. Visual hallucinations are most often a sign of an underlying medical disorder such as delirium, occipital lobe mass/infection, or drug intoxication or withdrawal. Hallucinations need to be distinguished from the normal, imaginative play of a young child.10

Bipolar mania. In adults, bipolar disorder is a primary psychiatric cause of agitation. In children and adolescents, the diagnosis of bipolar disorder can be complex and requires careful and nuanced history-taking. The risks of agitation are greater with bipolar disorder than with unipolar depression.11,12

Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder. Prior to DSM-5, many children and adolescents with chronic, non-episodic irritability and severe outbursts out of proportion to the situation or stimuli were given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. These symptoms, in combination with other symptoms, are now considered part of disruptive mood dysregulation disorder when severe outbursts in a child or adolescent occur 3 to 4 times a week consistently, for at least 1 year. The diagnosis of disruptive mood dysregulation disorder requires ruling out other psychiatric and medical conditions, particularly ADHD.13

Substance intoxication/withdrawal. Intoxication or withdrawal from substances such as alcohol, stimulant medications, opioids, methamphetamines, and other agents can lead to agitation. This is more likely to occur among adolescents than children.14

Adjustment disorder. Parental divorce, especially if it is conflictual, or other life stressors, such as experiencing a move or frequent moves, may contribute to the development of agitation in children and adolescents.

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