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How to Parent Children with Bipolar Disorder

Parenting a child with bipolar disorder can be difficult. Here are some ways you can help your child with bipolar disorder.

Parenting a child with bipolar disorder is an experience as unpredictable as the mental illness itself. Does it seem like an ever-evolving situation? It may seem when you’ve learned what to do with repeated mood cycles, along comes a surprise. In an interview with a parent of a son with bipolar disorder, she told the following story and gave some thoughts on how to handle bipolar disorder in children.

Life with a Child Experiencing a Mental Illness

He shook and roared with rage like a caged tiger. Trapped in the car as I drove to a nearby mental hospital, my teenage son threatened me. He spit. My son cursed. He seethed with anger for what “we were doing to him.” He tried opening the door as I drove at highway speed, but thank God, the safety lock was on.

My life as a parent was surreal. As we stood at check-in, where we had been several times before, I glanced at this handsome, now fourteen-year-old child-man, standing beside me. Could he be my son Jeremy—the once-charming little toddler with so much exuberance and laughter? Clutching to my faith in God, I felt thankful for all who were praying for us. I was alone, yet I was not.

After our arrival, Jeremy had metamorphosed into a new being. What inner dynamic triggered this switch in persona, I pondered? At intake, they might have wondered why we had come—unless they read the doctor’s referral. I stared with curiosity at this now rational, well-mannered son. When he wasn’t scowling and shouting epithets at me, I recognized his winsome personality and clean-cut features. Did he not realize I was his most loyal advocate?

In mere moments, a good-natured son arose from the refuse of my dysfunctional manic teen. Even his quirky sense of humor was on display as he joked with the staff. Before the nurse took him back, he leaned down to hug me. With tears in my eyes, I waved goodbye to this kid who had caused me fear, grief, and a need to confess my own anger and frustration. 

How to Know—Is This Normal?

Living with a child with bipolar disorder can be a challenge, but when they are young, it can be even more difficult to manage. You may wonder why your child overreacts to something that seems minor, or you can’t wrap your head around the heavy sadness your child bears. Why can’t they snap out of their depressive mood? You may hope the behavior is a stage to be outgrown. As a parent you might question your parenting techniques because it’s easy to blame yourself. You may think it must be due to a lack of consistency in setting boundaries and expectations. In other moments, you reassess, thinking, “I’ve got this. We all had a great time this evening.”

Research on Bipolar Disorder

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) explains that bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes changes in mood and behavior, often extreme for a given age and stage. The NIMH reports the impacts of bipolar disorder on children and teens, differentiating between the normal highs and lows children may experience and the mood changes associated with bipolar disorder. Often young people with bipolar disorder experience struggles in school and in relationships. Though diagnoses often come in teen or adult years, the symptoms are also seen at much younger ages.

One confusing element in the bipolar disorder diagnosis is how often it is associated with other common disorders like attention-deficit/hyperactivity (ADHD). Children with conduct or anxiety issues can also be confused with those with bipolar disorder. If the home and school environments haven’t provided constructive boundaries, then those with conduct or oppositional behavior may seem to have bipolar disorder.

Though researchers continue to study the causes of bipolar disorder, diagnosis is possible by experienced mental health professionals. Since there aren’t any definitive blood tests or brain scans to prove a bipolar diagnosis, it’s important to share family background, and let healthcare providers rule out other causes for mood and behavior episodes. Successful treatment is possible to help your child manage his or her symptoms. The NIMH recommends a careful, consistent plan of therapy and medication, as determined by a professional, rather than a start and stop approach.

Bipolar Disorder in Children

When a fourteen-year-old family member experienced a major growth spurt, he told his parents that his mood-regulating medicine made him feel bad. He had taken ADHD and mood control medicine successfully for several years. His symptoms had been well-managed. Unfortunately, his immediate family moved to a new state about the same time as he surged in height. Finding new medical professionals took time, and then the trial-and-error of finding the right medicine in the best dosage took even longer. This treatment interruption caused dire consequences over the next number of months.

New school “friends” showed the teen how valuable his prescriptions were. He would pretend to take the pills at home and then would trade them at school where they were a valuable street asset. Students would gladly pay for them to experience their own emotional high.

After that, risky behaviors kicked in. This teen discovered illegal drugs made him “feel better” than the medicine had. All treatment consistency had been broken, and the parents stood heartbroken watching their once well-behaved son unravel. As the NIMH research points out, young people with bipolar are at risk for misusing drugs and alcohol. Extreme and risky behaviors are common in young people in a manic episode.

When experiencing a depressive episode, a young person may contemplate suicide or running away. When these circumstances manifest, parents need help from all sides: a support network of medical professionals, school counselors, therapists, pastors, family, and friends. If the family has relationships within a church body, these people may be invaluable to offer supportive prayer, practical help, and empathetic ears as the family struggles to find solutions.

How Can I Help My Child with Bipolar Disorder?

Look for Professionals with Experience

Medical healthcare providers should be able to diagnose and prescribe appropriate medicine to meet your individual child’s needs. Learn about finding help by going to the NIMH website or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) online resources.

Journal any behavioral incidents that might give medical doctors more clues in diagnoses. Psychosocial therapists are helpful with maintaining routines, improving social interactions, and emotional regulation.

Connect with your potential support network in advance and learn their availability if you experience a manic crisis. Plan who to call in emergencies when there is a behavioral escalation like running away, drug use, skipping school, and threatening behavior toward other children or you.

In the scenario where the family had moved, their lack of support precipitated an additional layer of stress for both the child with bipolar disorder and his parents. The new school system didn’t properly intervene because they didn’t have a personal history with the family. They suggested the problems were between the parents and the teenager. With advice like “eat together” to provide a cohesive family structure, the parents wanted to pull out their hair. They had faithfully provided structure for their three children with family meals and family time with games and or sports every day. Pat answers were not helping them with the escalated behavioral episodes.

Follow the Treatment Plan

Don’t assume that it’s okay to stop medication and therapy because you don’t see irregular mood episodes. Reliable and consistent treatment works best and might prevent or lessen mood episodes. If a prescribed medication isn’t working well, contact the provider for an adjustment.

Keeping a mood chart can help you see patterns of behavior, including sleep. This will
help the health care provider determine the effectiveness of treatment.

Structure for You and Your Family

Provide structure in your family life to build a consistent, emotionally safe environment. Have family prayer time, emphasizing how God cares about each one in your family. Have fun together and help your child find things he or she enjoys. This may provide an emotional and spiritual foundation during difficult times.

Encourage talk and be a good listener for insights into your child’s perspectives. Patience can be an antidote to escalation.Remember that treatment of bipolar is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t give up.

What About Me/Us?

Mood episodes can exhaust parents and children. You may feel overwhelmed and desperate to end the cycle of challenges. Reach out for support through your church, your medical provider, and online groups that share common experiences. Listen to what has helped others in parenting children with bipolar disorder.

If you need respite care to provide personal relief, check with your health care provider and discuss your need. Perhaps a family member or friend could allow you time to renew your mental, emotional, and spiritual life.

Final Thoughts on Bipolar Disorder in Children

In an interview with a parent who has been on the bipolar journey for many years, she expressed the following suggestions:

Trust your instincts and pay attention to what is happening with your child. Always advocate for your child. Sometimes the professionals might miss something, or not be right for your child. Never give up hope. Trust in the God of your faith to reveal your next step, to go before
you, and to give you strength.

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