Roughly 5.7 million adults in America are currently experiencing bipolar disorder, many of whom are parents. Having bipolar parents at any age can be incredibly challenging and stressful, especially if their condition is undiagnosed and untreated.
Of course, young children arguably suffer the most as they don’t yet have the capacity to understand what mental health is or what it means when their mother, father or guardian is struggling mentally.
Below we’ll discuss the impacts of growing up with a bipolar parent and what parents with the mental health disorder can do to mitigate the potentially harmful effects of the condition on their children.
Understanding Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar disorder is a lifelong mental health condition characterized by drastic shifts in an individual’s mood and energy levels. Essentially, bipolar disorder changes the ways a person’s brain reacts to and feels toward certain situations and stimuli.
The condition is further classified by phases of highs and lows, which are associated with bouts of mania (the highs) and depression (the lows).
- The high phase is recognized by high levels of energy, but in a way that represents unusual behaviors. These behaviors often include dressing differently, spending an excessive amount of money, exhibiting extreme happiness, talking faster than normal, engaging in elevated sexual activity and so on. These behaviors often affect a person’s daily life and activities, as well as their relationships.
- The low phase refers to feelings and symptoms of extreme depression or sadness. The behaviors exhibited during the low phase of the disorder typically include withdrawal from friends and family, a lack of appetite, persistent fatigue, irritability, insomnia, etc. These behaviors can also affect a person’s daily life and activities.
Despite it being a long-term condition, there are many ways to treat and manage bipolar disorder to improve a person’s overall quality of life. Of course, the individual in question would first need to seek help and treatment.
The Effects of Living With a Bipolar Mother or Father
The constantly changing moods and emotions of bipolar parents can have serious consequences on children. Bipolar mother-daughter relationships and bipolar father-son relationships (or vice versa) will have slightly different effects; however, the general long-term effects are:
Bipolar parents often create chaotic and unstable homes for children. The amount of instability can be traumatizing for young children, which can make it challenging for them to trust others — especially adults.
These feelings of distrust can follow children into adulthood, making it difficult to commit to school or jobs. It can also impact their future relationships with friends and romantic partners.
Young children aren’t equipped to rationalize the ever-changing and erratic behavior of their guardians, fathers or mothers with bipolar disorder as a consequence of a mental health condition. Therefore, they look inward and begin to blame themselves.
This causes excessive guilt, which can follow them into adulthood, where they’ll begin to blame themselves for others’ behaviors.
Because a life with bipolar parents is often uncertain and chaotic, children will look for stability in the form of control. Essentially, the child will follow the thought process that if they behave a certain way or “do everything right,” it’ll prevent the next chaotic episode.
This can manifest itself in a variety of ways, from acute control issues to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Depression and Anxiety
Another common long-term consequence of children having bipolar parents is depression and anxiety. Coping with the unpredictability of the mental health condition in one or both parents can cause a child to feel anxious and sad.
What’s more, studies show that maternal neglect — which is common in mothers with bipolar disorder — can lead to an increased risk for anxiety and depression in children who already present high-risk factors for mood disorders.
Counteracting the Effects of Bipolar Parents
Children of bipolar parents often find it difficult to accept that their behaviors or actions can’t “fix” their parents. However, they’ll likely still feel immense pressure to try to make things better. When they fail, they’ll blame themselves and the cycle will continue into adulthood unless the family receives the necessary help and support.
If you’re a parent with bipolar disorder, here are some things you can do to help mitigate the potentially damaging effects on your children:
Provide Stability and Predictability
Young children thrive on stability and predictability in their family members and daily routines. It allows them to feel relaxed and build confidence, as they know what they can expect from their parents and schedule.
With the help of your spouse or co-parent, create a straightforward routine for both you and your children to stick to throughout the week. You can even get your children involved to make it a fun group activity, as choosing meals and things to do together will help them feel more in control.
Open a Dialogue
While it may be difficult for children and even teenagers to understand, it’s important to discuss your mental health condition if it’s something that can harm them. They need to know that your changing behavior has nothing to do with them and what they should do if they notice you’re acting differently.
By opening a dialogue with your family, you’ll have a better chance of creating an environment of empathy and understanding — which is much healthier than trying to hide your bipolar disorder.
Get Help for Yourself
Bipolar disorder is very much treatable via a combination of therapies and medications that allow the individual to better manage their symptoms. When left untreated, the mental health condition can worsen, with high and low phases becoming more frequent and lasting longer.
Getting professional help for your bipolar disorder is crucial to both your overall health and that of your family. It will provide you with the tools that allow you to take control of your mental health and achieve more stability in your own life. That way, you’ll be able to provide a more stable home for your children and be the parent they need you to be.
Get Help for Your Children
It’s also a good idea to ensure your children have a support system in place as well. This would include a therapist who can help them work through any trauma they’ve experienced along the way.
This will allow them to better understand their own feelings and encourage them to build up the necessary resilience to cope with any instability or chaos they’ve experienced so they’re not affected long-term.
It’s also important to note that familial studies show that children with bipolar parents have at least a 10% chance of developing the mental health disorder themselves. By having your children evaluated by a mental health professional, they can start treatment if necessary to improve their mental health and quality of life early on.
What Happens Next?
Bipolar disorder is a serious mental health condition, but growing up with bipolar parents doesn’t have to negatively affect your children. The key is to make sure you put them first by seeking professional help and doing everything you can to create the stable, nurturing environment they deserve.
If you or a loved one is experiencing bipolar disorder, professional help is right around the corner. Restore Mental Health has experienced mental health professionals who are equipped and ready to treat a wide range of disorders. Contact us today to learn more about the support and services we provide for those with bipolar disorder.