A parent’s bipolar disorder can be frightening and overwhelming to children, who are often left to figure out for themselves how to cope with their scary parent.
Parents who have bipolar disorder typically worry about the effect of the illness on their kids, but there is little information available about how to reduce the impact.
It’s doubly difficult because bipolar disorder is an inherent, built-in part of you as the child’s parent.
Here are some ways we can help children cope with our bipolar disorder and grow up normally.
- Drip-feed information in small dollops on demand. Keep updating your explanation as the years go by and the children’s understanding increases, as you may do with sex education.
- Answer questions openly in a way that invites further questions. Answer the question and do it truthfully, fully and honestly. Then be prepared to answer any follow-up questions. Eventually you will get a look that says ‘enough info for now, thanks.’ Let the child determine the end of the conversation.
- Avoid lectures, where you talk and the child listens. Use everyday occurrences as opportunities to make brief comments on the run. This technique reduces bipolar disorder to a normal everyday matter-of-fact thing.
- Give bipolar a nickname. In my workshops for bipolar sufferers and their supporters I run a fun exercise where we all think of a nickname for our bipolar disorder. Calling it ‘Bertha’ or ‘Gerry’ allows us to separate ourselves from our ill-selves, and even laugh at it. That’s an important activity for children, too. Find out from your child if they have a nickname for it, or encourage them to think of one. Ask them to tell you or another trusted adult when they see Bertha or Gerry arrive!
- Have fun with your children: plain, no-cost play time together. Tell the children their job is to have fun, and not to be concerned about you.
- Expect to have to change. As children grow and their capacity for understanding increases, they will tend to make requests of you. Negotiate this as you would with an adult, and if you can make a change in your behavior, try to do so.
- Set aside your own embarrassment or shame so you can talk frankly about your behavior when you are ill. The easiest way to do this is with the nickname: you can say ‘It wasn’t me, Bertha did it,!’ After all, when you were ill you were ‘not yourself’. (That is not to say you’re not responsible for doing your best to stay well!)
- Apologies for your behavior when ill are not necessary. Instead, say you wish it hadn’t happened, and focus on what the child observed and felt during that time.
- Allow the children to see the best of you. Children do what parents do, not necessarily what they say. You have to agree that sometimes bipolar behavior is not the type of role model you want for your kids. You can model responsibility, healthy self-criticism, admitting your own shortcomings, determination to live well, and refusal to admit defeat. From your example, your children will learn how to overcome setbacks in their own lives.
- Finally, if your bipolar is causing you to act as a parent in ways that you do not approve of then seek assistance from professionals who understand and accept bipolar as an entity. Your doctor or psychiatrist, for example, rather than social workers and psychologists who may not be educated about mental illness.
We all want the best for our children, but it’s important to recognize that all children are impacted upon by events beyond their parents’ control. Don’t waste time grieving about something you can’t change – just enjoy your children while they grow.