Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that causes extreme and unpredictable mood swings. There are two types of bipolar disorder — bipolar 1 and bipolar 2. Bipolar 1 is diagnosed when the person has had a manic episode — an elevated level of expression and energy for over a week. People with a bipolar 2 diagnosis have experienced a hypomanic episode and at least one depressive episode lasting a minimum of 2 weeks. The high-energy periods of mania or hypomania in bipolar disorder, in contrast to the periods of depression, appear as if the person is having severe mood swings. In most cases, therapy and prescription medication are combined to manage bipolar disorder long-term. Regardless of treatment, the children of bipolar parents may find navigating the diagnosis and parental relationships challenging.
Bipolar disorder affects approximately 4.4% of Americans. Many people with bipolar disorder receive their diagnosis when they’re a parent. For children, growing up with a parent who has bipolar disorder can be challenging. Find out how this situation impacts a child’s mental health and how you can care for yourself.
The Impact on Children of Bipolar Parents
Growing up as a child of bipolar parents can be challenging in many ways. You might not even realize until later in life that it’s impacted your mental health. Studies show that children of parents with bipolar disorder are at an increased risk for behaviors such as:
- Risky sexual behavior
- Aggressive behavior
- Substance abuse
- Suicide or suicidal ideation
It’s undeniable that a bipolar mother’s effects on her children can be life-altering, and the same is true for children with bipolar fathers. A 2011 study of children of parents with bipolar disorder found that 71.4% of offspring had at least one psychiatric disorder diagnosed in their lifetime.
Tips for Coping With Having a Bipolar Parent
Coping with the effects of having a bipolar parent can sometimes feel overwhelming. It’s important to realize that you’re not alone, and support is always available. Here are some methods to manage the stress, anxiety and emotions you may experience when your parent receives a bipolar diagnosis.
Develop Your Own Supportive Community
Whether you’re an adolescent or an adult whose parent has received a bipolar diagnosis, you’ve likely spent years witnessing unsettling mood swings that can be traumatic. As the child of a bipolar parent, it’s critical to focus on protecting your mental health. You can be there for your parent, but not at the expense of your own well-being. Join a local theater company, sports team, book club or church group. Whatever community aligns with your personality and interests, cultivate healthy relationships and give something positive back to yourself so you have a support network outside the home.
Try to Remove Emotion From the Equation
As children, regardless of age, it’s common to want approval, support and unconditional love from a parental figure. Unfortunately, when your parent is experiencing a manic or depressive episode, they may not be able to provide that to you at that moment. This isn’t their fault; it’s the result of their condition. However, to protect your own mental health, it’s important to remember that your self-worth is not tied to their validation. Try to focus on removing emotional attachment and need from your interactions with your parent when they’re not at their best. This can make it less painful for you emotionally to maintain a relationship with them.
Focus on Facts and Treatment
This goes hand in hand with trying to remove your emotional reaction from the situation if your parent isn’t responding to you in a favorable way. You can discuss the reality of their diagnosis with them, plans for treatment such as medication and therapy or how they feel about their condition. Focusing on how they’re managing their condition is a first step forward in navigating the relationship after diagnosis.
Don’t Force Communication
Discussing their well-being with your parent may feel important to you because you love and care for them. But in some cases, they may not be open to talking about their bipolar disorder diagnosis or may even react negatively if you attempt to check in on whether they’ve been sticking to their treatment. If you receive a negative or aggressive reaction when trying to communicate with a bipolar parent, don’t force the interaction. Deescalate the situation and try again when they’re in a different state of mind if you feel up to it. Also, don’t force yourself to continue engaging in conversations that cause stress.
Challenges for Children of Bipolar Parents
Children of parents with bipolar disorder can face mental health challenges and emotional challenges as they transition into adulthood. Growing up in a tumultuous home can create a lasting strain that carries into later years. If you grew up with a parent who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it’s common to experience the following challenges heading into adulthood:
- Difficulty trusting others. You may have been unable to rely on anyone growing up, making you slow to trust other people.
- Anxiety or depression. Growing up with a bipolar parent can increase your risk of developing mental health conditions that can affect your well-being. Knowing where to seek help is critical.
- Lack of confidence. Children of bipolar parents may have faced disapproval or unwarranted reprimand or been at the mercy of mood swings that felt like their fault. This may inspire a lack of confidence later as an adult.
Caring for Yourself With a Bipolar Parent
If you grew up with a bipolar parent and are facing these challenges as an adult, it’s essential to practice self-care by:
- Knowing when to walk away from a confrontation with your parent
- Taking time for yourself (practicing a hobby you enjoy, spending time with friends, etc.)
- Being gentle with yourself and talking to yourself as you’d talk to someone you love; not being hard on yourself
- Speaking to a therapist
If you have a bipolar parent or are the parent of a bipolar child, professional support is available. Restore Mental Health has professional counselors available for therapy to address various mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. Contact us today for information on support available for children and families impacted by bipolar disorder.