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

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

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

teens
A picture of three teenaged boys in swim trunks sitting outside. Credit to flickr.com user Mighty mighty bigmac. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

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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]

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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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How to Talk to Someone Experiencing a Bipolar Mood Episode

Trigger Warning: This post contains a brief discussion of suicidal ideation.

Bipolar patients suffering from mood episodes often make no sense. If they are depressed, they may say things like, “I’m a failure. No one loves me. I want to die.” On the flip side, if they’re manic or hypomanic, they might say things like, “I can fly! Let’s deep clean the house at midnight! It’s all so clear now!”

Telling the depressed person that he or she is not a failure and that people love him or her may fall on deaf ears. Similarly, trying to engage with the manic person’s delusions might be futile. So how do you talk to someone suffering from these issues?

Let’s dig in.

How to Talk to a Depressed Person

In order to talk to a depressed person, you need to address the root problem: the illness. You need to offer sympathy, understanding, and possible solutions.

For example, one thing you can say in response to his or her negativity is this: “I hear you. I understand that you’re depressed. This is normal for your bipolar disorder. I know it sucks. I’ve seen you like this before. Maybe you could take a long, hot shower; we know that helps you feel better.” This response addresses the real issue and communicates that you are there for the depressed person.

talking
A woman with very red lips on a cell phone. Credit to flickr.com user Anders Adermark. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Depressed people may also suffer suicidal thoughts, which are dangerous. If they express these thoughts, you can say something like, “Thank you for telling me. You mean a lot to me, and I am here for you.” Then suggest that the depressed person call his or her treatment team and let them know that he or she is suffering from these thoughts.

How to Talk to a Manic Person

Similar to talking to someone suffering from depression, when talking to a manic person, you need to respond with patience and understanding. He or she will try to talk over you, and will not be able to stop talking. Be careful about being swept up into the conversation, as it can be overstimulating for everyone.

If the manic person ends up overstimulated, his or her mania or hypomania might worsen and he or she may become agitated. Despite their confidence, people with hypomania or mania are very sensitive in their elevated mood, and may take offense easily. If you are overstimulated, you might not be as effective at helping them remain calm. Make sure that the manic person is in a safe place and walk away for a break.

When you return, answer questions briefly, calmly, and honestly. If the manic person proposes a project or goal, do not agree to participate. You can keep tabs on them during the project and remind them to eat, sleep, and generally take breaks.

In my own experience, I was manic shortly after giving birth. I clapped my hands repeatedly and demanded that we–myself and the woman from church visiting me–clean the house, rather than let me recover. I was focused on getting my projects done, and ended up devastated once my goal was thwarted. Prepare to deal with that devastation–or frustration.

If the manic person tries to argue, remain detached. Talk about neutral topics. If you need to postpone the discussion, say something like, “I see this means a lot to you. We definitely need to discuss this, but let’s do so in the morning after I am no longer upset and tired.” You can also try to redirect his or her behavior, saying something like, “Would you prefer to take a walk or watch a movie?”

Final Thoughts

Communicating with people suffering from a mood episode, be it mania or depression, can be difficult. They often believe things that aren’t true. So taking care of yourself in the situation is paramount. If the manic or depressive person is critical of you, tell the person that you understand that he or she is ill and upset, but that you will not tolerate being spoken to in that way. Then find a way to exit the conversation and reconvene later. Be firm, but kind.

Above all, as with so many strategies for dealing with bipolar people, be patient. They are suffering from a mental illness that they cannot control. It’s not their fault. If they must deal with the consequences of their actions, try to present those consequences after they come out of the mood episode, when they are back to their rational selves.

Good luck!

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