Common Pitfalls When Communicating With Your Kids About Your Bipolar Disorder, Part I

This is part one of a two-part post. [Part I | Part II]

teresa qin
A picture of a little girl with black braids. Credit to flickr.com user Teresa Qin. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Trigger warning: This post contains discussions of suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

Communicating with your children about your bipolar disorder is one of the best ways to ensure that they can handle your ups and downs. You may have an instinct to hide uncomfortable situations from your kids, but kids are intuitive. They will know if someone in the family is suffering, even if they can’t put their fin0gers on why. If the problem isn’t explained to them, they can assume the worst, including but not limited to thinking that your mental illness is their fault. Preparing your kids properly is crucial to managing their relationship with you and your bipolar disorder.

Sometimes, things don’t go as well as you might expect. This happened to a friend of mine recently. Her son casually suggested that he wanted to die by suicide. “I wanted him to know I take that very seriously, and serious steps will be taken,” she said. “I wanted to scare him, just a little. But I scared the crap out of him.”

She explained to him that her 18-year-old cousin died by suicide, and then began to answer his questions. Her mistake was in answering too many of his questions, no matter how inappropriate for his age. “He was way too young for me to answer all those questions,” she said. “You have regrets in parenting… That’s on the list.”

When communicating with your kids about mental illness, having a plan or roadmap helps. Going astray from that plan is common, so here are some common pitfalls when talking with your kids about your mental illness, like bipolar disorder:

Your Children are Too Young

There is no “too young” for communication, but there are age-appropriate versions. My friend’s mistake was that her son was too young for the information and ideas that he received. He didn’t understand why casually suggesting that he wanted to die by suicide was so serious. So when she tried to explain that, she frightened him with knowledge beyond his ability to handle. Sometime our children are too young to understand issues surrounding mental illness. But even a two-year-old can understand that you need to take medication to stay healthy. Your toddler might not be able to quite get that your illness is in your head, but he or she can understand you saying, “Mom has an illness. Sometimes she needs to go see a doctor.”

With toddlers and the preschool set, keep your answers simple. Five to ten-year-olds require short, true answers, whereas preteens need more concrete, also true, information. Try to ask questions of your children to gauge what their maturity level is, so you know how much information to share.

Disrespecting Your Children’s Boundaries

Most parents don’t intentionally disrespect their children’s boundaries. But sometimes, we as parents can accidentally cross a line with our kids. We need to consider their comfort levels during conversations, especially ones about a parent’s mental illness. The topic is admittedly fraught with emotions, especially given how much our mental illnesses affect our kids. They are dependent on us for their physical and emotional health; thinking that their parent is fallible is scary.

The best way to avoid crossing boundaries with our kids is to ask questions, and check in with them regarding their comfort level. When discussing mental illness, try to be as pragmatic as possible. Offer explanations and reassurances in equal measure. Explain to your children that your moods are affected by your bipolar disorder, and that may affect them in turn. Tell them that you will always love them, regardless of how you’re feeling in the moment.

Try to gauge how uncomfortable your children are by reading their body language. If they turn away from you or fold their arms or generally look non-receptive, then back off and try the conversation again later, when they’re more ready.

Final Thoughts

Communicating with your children about your bipolar disorder is crucial for managing their relationship with you and your mental i0llness. You will make mistakes, like my friend. That’s okay. Just keep trying and do your best. Look for the last common pitfall and more tips to talk to your kids about your bipolar disorder in part II.

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Author: Cassandra Stout

Hi! My name is Cassandra Stout, and I am a freelancer and memoirist who blogs at The Bipolar Parent (Cassandrastout.com/bpparent) and at the International Bipolar Foundation (IBPF.org). My current project is Committed, my upcoming memoir that depicts my time spent in a psych ward after a postpartum psychotic breakdown. I am a ten-year member of a five-person critique group called the Seattle Scribblers. It's nice to meet you!

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