bipolar parent

Learned Behaviors: Passing on Coping Mechanisms

Learned behaviors are just as it says on the tin: behaviors that are learned rather than innate, such as a dog being taught to roll over. These behaviors are born from experience, coming from conditioning through rewards and punishments. Learned behaviors can also be f0und in the children of the mentally ill.

Credit to user Delete. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Some learned behaviors of children of ill parents are over-responsibility, inability to cope with life unless it’s chaotic, or equating worth as a person solely with achievements. As they grow into adults, many kids will mirror symptoms of the disordered parent even if they themselves are not mentally ill.  For example, children of depressed parents can exhibit depressive symptoms when under stress even if the children themselves are not depressed.

Habits–good or bad–can be passed on. Most children learn coping mechanisms when dealing with their mentally ill parent–possibly negative ones such as temper tantrums, lying, and manipulation, if the parent is an unhealthy role model. When I’m too tired to cook, which happens depressingly often, I’ll pack the kids into the car and go through the drive thru at Taco Bell or some other fast food restaurant. I take a lot of pleasure in eating out. Now I worry that these bad eating habits will be instilled in my children. Nolan, my eight-year-old, already asks if we’re going out on a regular basis.

How the house is run can also be passed on. My own mother–who does not have bipolar disorder–learned her disorganized patterns from her mother–who demonstrated symptoms of the illness–and I’ve learned them from mine. From frequently being late to rarely making meals on time, we have three generations of chaos under our belts.

But there are also positive aspects of mental illnesses that can be learned by children. My own son has learned to be patient with me when I have down days or up. He is also compassionate, which I largely attribute to his having learned how to interact with me when I’m not at my best. And he’s sensitive as well.

This is not to say that I subscribe to the behaviorist theory of mental illnesses, which is to say that disorders are learned. Not in the slightest. The causes of bipolar disorder are genetic, physiological, and environmental stressors which trigger those who are already susceptible to the disease. Just that some coping strategies–healthy and otherwise–can be passed on to children of mentally ill parents.

What habits are you afraid to pass on to your children? Conversely, which habits do you want them to get from you?