Growing Up with a Parent Who Has Bipolar Disorder

Growing up in a safe and stable home is important for a child’s development. If a parent is struggling with an untreated mental illness such as bipolar disorder, a child may experience sadness or anger because they don’t understand what’s happening. The effects of growing up with a bipolar parent can be long-lasting and may result in mental health issues.

If your upbringing was unstable, you may have concerns about becoming a parent out of fear you also have bipolar disorder. Many children of bipolar parents feel this way. Understanding the condition and how your unresolved childhood trauma may be affecting you can help you build a healthier life.

What Is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes unusual shifts in energy, mood, concentration and activity levels, making it difficult to carry out daily tasks. There are three types of bipolar disorder ranging from extreme manic or depressive episodes to less severe hypomanic symptoms:

  • Bipolar I Disorder: Manic episodes that last at least seven days and depressive episodes that last at least two weeks. Hospital care may be needed to cope with symptoms.
  • Bipolar II Disorder: Less severe pattern of depressive and hypomanic episodes.
  • Cyclothymic Disorder: Recurrent depressive and hypomanic symptoms that aren’t intense enough to qualify as episodes.

Bipolar disorder is usually diagnosed in late adolescence or early adulthood and often requires lifelong treatment. Individuals can experience a range of manic and depressive symptoms, including:

  • Feeling sad, down or anxious
  • Feeling high, elated or irritable
  • Trouble falling asleep or sleeping too much
  • Racing thoughts
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Excessive appetite for food, drinking or other pleasurable activities
  • Loss of interest in all activities
  • Feeling unusually important or powerful
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

People can experience a mix of manic and depressive symptoms simultaneously, such as feeling sad, hopeless or worthless while feeling energized at the same time.

How Bipolar Disorder Can Affect the Parental Role

Bipolar disorder is known to cause intense mood swings that impact how an individual thinks or acts. Individuals experience manic highs where they have a lot of energy and may make rash, impulsive decisions. These highs are usually followed by extreme lows where depressive symptoms take over, causing individuals to lose interest in everything. It may be hard for them to get out of bed or accomplish simple everyday tasks.

Without treatment or medication, these unpredictable mood swings can be more frequent and severe, significantly impacting a family’s day-to-day life. One woman describes her experience growing up with a bipolar mother. During manic periods, her mother would crank up the music in the house and start dancing and singing sometimes while naked. During depressive episodes, she could become emotionally and physically abusive, causing an unstable mother daughter relationship.

Because of her mother’s severe mood swings, this woman would spend her days at school worrying about her mother being home alone. When untreated, the fluctuating mood swings of bipolar disorder can create an unstable household, causing a child to feel constantly anxious and on edge.

Long-Term Effects of Growing Up With a Bipolar Parent

Growing up with a bipolar parent can often lead to traumatic childhood experiences. The effects can also be long-term, following children into adulthood. Research shows that children of bipolar parents are at an increased risk of developing a mood disorder, anxiety or a sleep disorder later in life. Bipolar disorder can also affect a child’s developmental outcomes, including:

  • Motor quality
  • Cognition, such as memory and attention
  • Intellectual functioning
  • Psychosocial development, such as work, interpersonal relations and global functioning

Environmental factors of growing up with a bipolar parent can play a big role in a child’s mental health. Mood swings can often be debilitating, making it difficult for a parent to be a good caregiver. Children may blame themselves for their parent’s behavior, thinking their actions may have caused a mood swing. They may continue to blame themselves even when they are not living with their parent.

Growing up with a bipolar parent can also create a lot of uncertainty, causing children to become hyper focused on following rules. They may be afraid that breaking a rule or stepping out of line, even in a harmless way, can trigger one of their parent’s mood swings. In adulthood, this can translate into obsessive-compulsive disorder or controlling issues.

Resolving Childhood Trauma

Trauma can stay in the body even after leaving an unhealthy environment. It may take time to understand and process what happened, but moving on is possible. The healing process will be different for everyone, but here are a few steps you can take:

  • Therapy or counseling sessions can help you process the effects of growing up with a bipolar parent. Research suggests that children of bipolar parents are at a higher risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Therapy can help you understand and cope with trauma or PTSD symptoms.
  • Evaluate your current relationship with your parent. If they continue to cause you harm or stress, prioritizing yourself and taking a step back from the relationship may be necessary.
  • Find support groups within your community for people who share similar experiences with you. This can help you forge connections with others who understand what you’ve been through. You may also learn additional coping strategies to help you move on.

How Parents Who Have Bipolar Disorder can Mitigate Damage

Having bipolar disorder doesn’t inherently make someone a bad parent. Plenty of people seek proper treatment like therapy or medication to cope. The best thing you can do as a bipolar parent is to acknowledge your mistakes, get help and respect any boundaries your child has in place. You can’t change the past, but you can take steps toward a better future.

Mental Health Treatment Is Available

Whether you’re the child of a bipolar parent or a parent struggling with bipolar disorder, it’s not too late to get help for your mental health issues. Restore Mental Health offers a variety of treatment options, such as therapy and medication, to meet each person’s unique needs. Contact us today by calling for more information on how to get the help you need.