Interview With My Parents: On Raising a Bipolar Child

One of our greatest resources for memories about our childhoods is of course our parents. I asked mine for their perspectives on what my growing up bipolar was like for them. I did not have a diagnosis until I was twenty-one, but showed evidence of bipolar disorder since I was a teenager–in hindsight. Here are their responses:

What was it like raising a bipolar child?

Mom: Confusing! That about sums it up. You have an inkling that something is wrong, but where do you start looking? No professionals–teachers, doctors, social workers–no one said anything. If someone had told me, “you need to look into bipolar disorder,” I would have jumped on that. If someone had told me to read an article, I would have.

Dad: See how it’s a fluid field of study, now. There’s so much more out there than there used to be.

Mom: The first thing I read was that children turned out this way because the mother was cold. And I knew that couldn’t be right.

Dad: But being that you were our first child, you had a lot of attention given to you. Some children demand more.

Mom: Hindsight is 20-20. There’s a lot more out there, now. “Cassandra, bipolar” would have never gone together my mind. Then there’s the guilt, after you find out a diagnosis. You think you could have done something, that you should have known.

Dad: Your mother was concerned by why you weren’t tactile. We didn’t understand the hypersensitivity. But on the positive side, you would wow people with your intellectual abilities.

Mom: Going to school for you was exhausting–completely, physically, emotionally exhausting. You were putting on an act to be normal, and you’d come home and cry yourself to sleep every night.

Dad: There was a pressure to socialize.

Mom: My family and my church family would say, “There’s nothing wrong with her!” But they were completely blind to it.

Dad: Or in denial.

Mom: Yeah, that, too. But mostly blind. There’s a stigma of labeling. One thing I was not prepared for was when you were angry in high school. You were just frustrated and angry with yourself and your world, and I had no time or energy to deal with it. But your frustration was just overwhelming to you and to me. Life had completely gotten out of hand at that point. But during the end of high school and the first years of college, you had these major meltdowns of depression. You were just listless. And you weren’t feeding yourself or taking a shower–you couldn’t!

What does it feel like being the parent of a bipolar adult?

Mom: Extreme relief that you have excellent medical care. And not only that, but that you have a husband who studies and understands each symptom as they crop up. He has no qualms about raising a child with you–about raising two children with you!

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Credit to flickr.com user yat fai ooi. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Dad: [Your husband] doesn’t say much, so you can’t assume–

Mom: But I see the results. What does it feel like being the parent of a bipolar adult? I worry about you. That’s normal for any child. With all of my children who have a handicap, so to speak, I’ve lowered my expectations. So when they do achieve things, I’m surprised, even more than I am proud.

Dad: She learned that from me.

If I had had a diagnosis, would you have done anything differently?

Mom: Had I known, I would have treated you differently. And maybe that’s a bad thing. I treated you like a normal person because I didn’t know any better.

Thank you, Mom and Dad! I hope these insights will inspire other adults who suffer from mental health issues to talk to the people who raised them, if they have that kind of relationship with their caretakers.

Children at High Risk for Bipolar Disorder Genetically Vulnerable to Stress

children
Credit to flickr.com user tanitta. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Genetic alterations that regulate stress have been found in children at high risk for bipolar disorder, according to research done by scientists at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). The study was published in Translational Psychiatry, a Nature Publishing Group journal.

 

Researchers have long known that children who experience stressors in their lives are more likely to develop bipolar disorder. Parents with bipolar may struggle with their disorders, thus placing stress on their children. But this study shows that children at a high risk for developing bipolar–due to having family members with a history of psychiatric illness–are genetically vulnerable to stress.

The scientists at UTHealth took blood samples from eighteen children, consisting of a set of bipolar patients, a set of apparently neurotypical patients with bipolar parents, and a set of neurotypical controls with parents that have no history of mental illness. The blood samples revealed that, compared with the control group, bipolar children and unaffected kids with bipolar parents have genetic alterations that regulate the response to stress.

So, children with bipolar parents are more vulnerable to stress, and when stressed, tend to develop the disorder. This may sound like bad news all around, but there is a positive approach to this study. Future research may reveal the effects of reducing stress, as well as whether medication might be able to reverse the genetic alterations in children before bipolar disorder matures.

What to do if Your Child has Bipolar Disorder

So you’ve discussed your child’s symptoms with a pediatric mental health specialist, and have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. What now? Thankfully, there are some suggestions you can take, and taking care of your child with bipolar disorder is similar to taking care of an adult with the disorder.

1. Pay attention to medications and therapy appointments

As a parent, you are responsible for making sure your child follows their treatment plan. Use whatever reminders you can to remember to give him or her the medication that he or she needs.  If your child must take their pills at school, then open a line of communication with his or her teachers and school nurse. Appointments with his or her therapist are also important. Make sure your child attends their appointments

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Credit to flickr.com user Cristyan González Alfonso. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

2. Monitor side effects

Some side effects of atypical antipsychotics, like weight gain and blood sugar changes, are awful in adults–and children do seem to be more prone to them. These drugs were originally formulated for adults, and few have been tested on kids. Ask your child’s psychiatrist what side effects you need to keep an eye on.

3. Work out agreements with your child’s teachers

Some children with bipolar disorder need more help at school, such as more breaks during manic episodes, or less homework. During especially bad episodes, your child may need to be removed from school until he or she stabilizes. Talk to your child’s teachers. Keeping an open line of communication is the best way to ensure your child has success at school.

4. Keep a schedule

Try to be consistent with mealtimes and bedtimes, as well as waking your child up at the same time every day. This will help keep stress in the home to a minimum. Try to be patient with your child as they adjust to new routines.

5. Go to family therapy, if needed

Taking care of a child with bipolar disorder may put a lot of stress on the family as a whole. Your marriage might suffer, and the child’s siblings might be jealous of all the attention he or she gets. Attending therapy as a family may help you handle these issues.

6. Don’t ignore threats of suicide

Suicide threats are extremely serious, even in young children who may not understand what it means. Talk to your children, and if they do have suicidal ideation, give them a safe environment. Remove all the weapons or pills from the house. And talk with their mental health specialists. Crisis lines are always open.

7. Communicate with your teenager

Teenagers may become irritated or resentful if they feel that you’re compelling them to be treated. Talk to them about why you’re giving them medication and taking them to therapy appointments. Educate your kids about their mental illness. Also, it’s important that your teenager avoid substance abuse, as the risks of developing a problem are much higher in teens with bipolar disorder. Alcohol and drugs can interact with medications poorly and worsen mood episodes, so it’s important that your teenager be made aware of the risks.

All in all, taking care of your child with bipolar disorder requires an extra level of parenting. But you can do it. There are steps you can take to help you.

6 Strategies for Parenting with a Mental Illness

When my mother was a little girl, her mother would disappear into her bed for months at a time, punctuated by periods of restless energy and action. My grandmother was so scatterbrained, she would forget the birthdays of each of her six children. The house was extraordinarily chaotic, what with my grandmother constantly replacing furniture from auctions and worrying about money. She was never diagnosed, but her behaviors were hallmarks of mental illness.

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Credit to flickr.com user Teresa Qin. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Parenting while mentally ill adds extra challenge to people’s lives. Often, children of parents with a mental illness can feel anxious due to the chaos in the household, or unloved because their parent may be emotionally unavailable. Here are some tips for maintaining a healthy relationship with your children despite facing mental instability.

1. Get Treatment

Treatment helps a mental ill parent function properly. Being able to get out of bed in the morning to take your child to school on a regular basis requires you to manage your disorder. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. There is help available.

2. Try to Stick to a Routine

Providing structure for your kids helps them grow into healthy, well-adjusted adults. Unpredictable behaviors in a parent disintegrates a child’s sense of safety and make it difficult for children to learn self-care routines. Even though enforcing structure may be difficult, abiding by Taco Tuesdays ensures that your children will have a rock in what may be chaos otherwise.

3. Talk to Your Kids About Your Mental Illness

Arming your children with age-appropriate information helps them realize that it’s not their fault that you suffer from a mental illness. If you keep them up to date with what’s happening with you, they can learn what to expect when you’re having a down day. They’ll also learn to separate you from your disorder, which can help them feel loved.

4. Create an Emergency Plan

Should you need to be hospitalized, your kids will need someone to pick them up from school and feed them dinner. If you have a partner and treatment team, create a crisis plan with them to ensure that your children won’t be affected negatively if an emergency sidelines you. Make sure that you communicate that plan to your kids.

5. Maintain Relationships with Adult Role Models

If you can’t provide a healthy role model for your kids, make sure they have someone in their lives who can. Consistency is key in this: you want an adult that will be there for them no matter what’s going on in their lives. If you have a supportive partner, that’s half the battle. If you’re a single parent, try to find a good friend or two–probably a parent themselves–who will help.

6. Remember That You are the Parent

Your children should not parent you. They are too young to take on that kind of responsibility, and that fosters an inappropriate relationship. Prioritize taking care of yourself. Put your oxygen mask on first, then care for your kids.

Following these six strategies can help mitigate the effects of your mental illness on your kids and encourage them to grow into healthy adults. Making them feel loved is paramount to their happiness.

What is Bipolar Depression?

My apologies for setting the blog aside for so long without an announcement–and what a post to leave it on! I’ve been grappling with a severe depressive episode which has

Photo by Manarianz5. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.
Photo by Manarianz5. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

escalated over the past year, leaving me not wanting to die, but just bereft of desire to participate in life.

Depression is often described as being miserable, down in the dumps, or–my favorite–trapped in a black, sucking hole of apathy. According to the Kübler-Ross model, also known as the five stages of grief, depression is one of the normal responses to a traumatic life event. Clinical or bipolar depression, however, rears its ugly head due to chemical imbalances in the brain, medication, or genes–meaning that it can strike at any time not connected to stress or winter blues. So what are depression’s signs and symptoms, and how are they treated?

Depression’s signs differ from person to person, but largely include a combination of these factors:

  • Persistent feelings of hopelessness
  • Poor concentration
  • Memory loss
  • Lack of energy
  • Isolation
  • Inability to sleep
  • Missed showers, meals
  • Suicidal tendencies

Over the past year I’ve isolated myself and my five-year-old, confining us both to the house due to both anxiety and depression. I’ve only just begun to emerge from the fugue, armed with new medications and new coping strategies, as well as an attempt to shuck off old habits.

Due to the advice of a dear friend, I found that doing things makes me want to do more things. It’s counter-intuitive, but making sure that I do the dishes and pick up the living room every day has worked as the best anti-depressant I’ve ever had. Staying in bed until I have to pick up my kid from kindergarten is a sure-fire way of destroying the rest of the day. Getting up and getting dressed is that first, difficult step, but I am better off when it’s done.

That said, I have to keep moving. How do you stay out of the sucking hole?