Bipolar disorder can affect family members and may make life particularly challenging for children. But the right information and support can help kids and parents cope.
Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that involves unanticipated changes in mood. These mood shifts can make life unpredictable and challenging for the family and loved ones of the person with bipolar disorder, including children.
Living with a parent who has bipolar disorder could cause feelings of guilt, stress, and helplessness in children.
If you are a child of a parent with bipolar disorder, reaching out to others with similar experiences can be validating, plus help you cope.
Learning more about bipolar disorder itself may also help you navigate your experience related to the condition at home and in social settings.
Bipolar disorder is a treatable condition. Many people with bipolar disorder find success with talk therapy, medication, or both.
Sometimes, even with treatment, bipolar disorder can affect family and other loved ones. For younger children, the challenge may be more pronounced, since they’re just beginning to learn about themselves and the world, often through their parents.
Possible effects of a parent’s manic or depressive episodes on kids
With whole family support, many children of people with bipolar disorder thrive.
The key is to talk about bipolar disorder and mental health as openly as possible with children. Trying to hide a mental health diagnosis, even if well intentioned, may lead to children experiencing emotional effects, including feelings of:
- guilt or depression
- uncertainty about their relationship with the parent
- anxiety or withdrawal
These feelings may make daily life hard for kids and affect their school performance and interpersonal relationships.
With the right resources, kids and their parents can manage these big feelings as they come up and maintain wellness.
I’m feeling overwhelmed by all of this. What are the top things I need to know about bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder has three main subtypes:
- Bipolar I disorder involves episodes of extreme high energy and agitation called mania.
- Bipolar II disorder involves episodes of mild-moderate mania that alternate with episodes of moderate-extreme depression.
- Cyclothymia involves depression and mania episodes that occur at the same time.
Some people experience hypomania, a less intense type of mania.
Episodes of mania can last for several days. People with some types of bipolar disorder may also experience periods of depression.
Many people with bipolar disorder can effectively manage it long term with medication and talk therapy.
How do I know if my parent has bipolar disorder?
You may see some signs of bipolar disorder in your parent, but only a mental health professional can rule out whether other conditions are causing their symptoms and confirm a bipolar disorder diagnosis.
Research shows family members and friends of people with bipolar disorder often notice small changes in the person before a formal diagnosis is made.
Symptoms are different for every person with bipolar disorder. General symptoms often include:
- extreme shifts in mood
- behaviors that cause consequences at work or with the law, like substance use
- nontypical or impulsive behaviors at home
Does this mean I’m going to have bipolar disorder? Or my kids?
If your parent has bipolar disorder, it does not mean you or your children will definitively have the condition too.
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Can someone with bipolar disorder be a ‘good’ parent?
Absolutely. Parents with bipolar disorder can still be “good” parents.
Someone with bipolar disorder has the same capacity to love and make mistakes as any other person.
Mind.org details an account of a mom with bipolar disorder who internalizes how the condition affects her kids. She recounts their appreciation of her energy and zest for life at times, and their “unsettled” apprehension at other times.
Like these personal accounts show, your experiences as the child of a parent with bipolar disorder are unique to you. You might see your upbringing no different from anyone else’s: a mix of both good and complicated memories.
Can I make them feel better?
Mood changes are not the fault of a child.
Bipolar disorder is a serious mental health condition. Mood changes start in the brain, often before outward signs manifest. That means even if environmental factors may make an episode of mania or depression more likely, they don’t start because of you.
In the same way, a child cannot stop a change in mood or episode of mania or depression.
But here’s what you can do to help your parent feel better:
- Give them space. Try not to bombard them with requests that can wait.
- Loop in a friend or family member who’s helped them with bipolar disorder episodes in the past, perhaps like your grandparent or an aunt or uncle.
- If it’s a dangerous situation, you can call your parent’s doctor or an emergency number like 911. If you call 911, ask the operator to send someone trained in mental health. These responders are called crisis intervention training (CIT) officers. If immediate help is needed, you can bring your parent to the nearest hospital.
Are there things I should look out for to know when an episode is starting?
The signs of mania or depression are a bit different for each person. Some people with bipolar disorder may track the early warning signs to help them manage the condition.
Before an episode of mania, you may notice your parent with bipolar disorder:
- needs less sleep
- suddenly has a better mood
- is more active
Before an episode of depression, you may notice they have:
- low energy
- a lack of interest in people or activities
- sorrowful thoughts or expressions
You can support your parent without it being at the expense of your own distress by learning early signs of mood shifts and protecting your well-being.
What do I do if I feel distressed?
It’s common to feel distressed if you live with a parent who has bipolar disorder. The American Psychological Association recommends finding your own support, in particular from others in similar circumstances.
A family support group, which you can find through organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness, may be an option.
You can also consider online support groups or one-on-one support through talk therapy.
You can take steps to help your parent manage their condition while still protecting and supporting your well-being.
You might try:
- maintaining your physical health through exercise and nutritious eating
- engaging with others through online therapy or group therapy
- trying not to take words or expressions personally when a parent is experiencing mania or depression
- learning strategies for helping them during an episode of mania
- listening to others’ stories about living with people who have bipolar disorder
- setting healthy boundaries between yourself and your parent
Your experience as a child of someone with bipolar disorder can change over time as you both age. Ongoing support and attention can provide tools to ease the journey.
Children of parents with bipolar disorder can experience many emotions related to the condition. Learning about it and reaching out to others can help you cope. Remember, a parent’s mental health condition is not your fault.
Together, the entire family can move forward with the right resources and support.