Communicating with your children about your bipolar disorder is crucial for managing their relationship with your and your mental illness. In part I, we looked at common pitfalls, including your kids being too young and disrespecting your children’s boundaries. Read on for one more common pitfall of communicating about your psychiatric condition.
Waiting Too Long
On the flipside of your kids being too young, you might have put off having this discussion until your kids are teens. Then your kids might be too old to listen to you properly. Some teens think they know everything, and refuse to hear out their parents or other authority figures, however well-meaning.
A friend of mine, a mother of four, related her experience of being rebuffed by her teenagers when she brought up serious subjects, and what she did to handle that. She said to them, “Just let me do the ‘mom thing’ for thirty seconds, and then I’ll let you go, okay?” She said they’d roll their eyes, but acquiesce to listen to whatever she had to tell them.
Tips For Communicating With Your Kids About Your Bipolar Disorder
You might not know where to start the conversation when speaking to your kids for the first time about mental illness. That’s okay. You can simply say something like, “you may have noticed that I have been erratic lately. I have a disease, bipolar disorder, which causes me to have different mood episodes, called mania and depression.” As long as you have their attention, be concrete and pragmatic.
If you’ve waited until your children are teenagers to talk to them about your bipolar disorder, there is a danger of their being angry, especially if the discussion arises from comments on your behavior, and not by your choice. If this is what happened, you haven’t ruined anything, but do expect to deal with your children’s anger. The best way to handle that is to prepare for it, by thinking about what they might say ahead of time, and making sure to listen to what they actually do say. Chances are, your kids already know about your bipolar disorder. You want to make sure that what they know is the truth, and not whatever desperate version they’ve decided on.
Some teens can benefit from statistics. For example, your kids are between 15-30% likely to develop bipolar disorder if one parent suffers from the disease, whereas they’re 45-60% likely if both parents do. You might be tempted to hide this information, so as not to freak them out. But knowing accurate facts about mental illness helps them to understand you better, and possibly themselves.
Knowledge, even uncomfortable knowledge, is better than the unknown. In addition, if they know common symptoms of bipolar disorder, they can be on the lookout for those symptoms in themselves and their friends, and understand you when you’re experiencing mood episodes.
Try not to hide information from your kids, especially teenagers. If you don’t inform them about your mental illness, they’ll probably turn to friends to ask why their mom or dad is acting strange. Or they might hide the dysfunction entirely, blaming themselves and growing up in a culture of shame. Reassure your kids that you will always love them, regardless of how your bipolar disorder makes you feel in the moment. And above all, be honest.
I wish you luck in your journey.