A version of this post appeared on the International Bipolar Foundation website.
As a parent with bipolar disorder, you might worry about the effects of your unchecked mental illness on your loved ones, especially your children. The devastating mood swings of bipolar disorder–ranging from manic “highs” to depressive “lows” and everything in between–can cause instability for your kids. One example, a 2014 study, showed teenaged children of parents with bipolar disorder are more susceptible to risky sexual behavior and emotional problems than young adults who do not have parents with bipolar disorder. As has been seen in many other cases, dysfunction in the home causes dysfunction in the child. This is equally true in cases of children with parents who suffer from mental illness, like bipolar disorder.
But there is good news. You can learn how to shield your children from the effects of your psychiatric condition. How? Let’s dig in.
Treat Your Disorder Properly
One of the most effective ways to shield your children from your bipolar disorder is to treat the disease properly. Try to eat a healthy diet and work exercise into your life. Adequate sleep is another requirement to keep you healthy and keep things from spiraling out of control. Make sure you get your forty winks, and if you have trouble, talk to your doctor. Taking medication regularly and working through emotional problems through therapy will help you manage your disorder and aid you in positively impacting your kids.
If your disorder is treatment-resistant, don’t give up hope. Dyane Harwood, author of Birth of a New Brain: Healing From Postpartum Bipolar Disorder, thought she’d exhausted all of her options to treat her bipolar depression, including electroconvulsive therapy. Then her doctor prescribed a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI). The drug worked, and Harwood is now engaged with her children and husband, living life the way she wants to.
Bipolar in the family needs a whole family solution. The entire household needs to learn coping skills to handle a parent’s disorder. Ask your therapist for ways to teach your partner and children to deal with the ups and downs of your bipolar disorder. If your children start showing symptoms of emotional problems, such as anxiety, phobias, or intolerance to frustration, find a child behavioral psychologist or a therapist willing to see children. Make a list of the symptoms you’ve seen in your kids, and be sure to include your family history as well.
Cultivate a Support Network
One aspect of getting help is relying on a support system of healthy adults. They can spot you when you’re feeling too up or too down. They can offer your children a more stable environment during manic or depressive episodes by taking the children to a different place, like your friends’ homes, or coming over to yours. Your kids need adults they can consistently rely on, even if you can’t provide that reliability sometimes. Try to develop that support if you don’t have it. When you are well, cultivate reciprocal friendships with other adults you can trust with your children. Easier said than done, of course, but try to be a reliable source of childcare for your parent friends, so they will pitch in when you need them.
Prepare Your Kids
Shielding your kids from bipolar disorder doesn’t mean hiding the illness from them. Preparing your children to accept what’s happening around them can be difficult, but it is worthwhile. Communication with your children is crucial when managing their understanding of bipolar disorder. You might think explaining your disease to them is wrong. There’s an instinct to hide uncomfortable situations from your children, but kids are intuitive. They will know if someone in the family is suffering, even if they can’t put their finger on why. If the problem isn’t explained to them, they may assume the worst, even to the point where they think it’s their fault. Letting your children know up front what to expect if you’re suffering from a mood episode will help your kids roll with the punches. Keep the explanation simple, and be ready to revisit the conversation anytime your children have questions.
When explaining your bipolar disorder to your children, stress that this disease is not your kids’ fault. Also stress that taking care of a parent suffering from mental illness is not their job. They will probably appreciate your candor and feel more secure in their relationship with you and their place in the world. If things don’t go well, talk to your therapist for ways to help your children understand bipolar disorder and their relationship with you as a parent with a mental illness.
If your older children are concerned about developing bipolar disorder themselves, tell your preteens honestly that they are not destined to have the disease. Studies put the inheritance rate at about 30% with a single parent affected by bipolar disorder, and around 60% for both. You don’t need to quote the statistics to a younger child, but a teen might be interested. Because of the instinct to hide uncomfortable situations from your children, you might want to keep this from your children. But knowing even uncomfortable statistics, like the 30%, is better than the unknown.
When you suffer from mental illness, taking care of yourself is a tall order. Taking care of a child as a parent with bipolar disorder adds additional complications, but it’s worth it. You can shield your children from bipolar disorder in several ways. Make sure that you treat your disease with professional help. Cultivate a support system. And it’s paramount that you communicate with your children about your disorder, so they know what to expect and what their place is.
You can do this.