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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How to Spot Bipolar Disorder in Teens And What to do About It

Bipolar disorder, a mental illness of two extremes, is difficult to spot in teenagers because even healthy teens are volatile. The disease typically develops in the early 20s.  But the symptoms are often misdiagnosed, especially in teens. What does bipolar disorder look like in a teenager, and how does a parent spot it?

Let‘s dig in.

Bipolar disorder is characterized by “highs” (called mania), and “lows” (called depression). Bipolar patients also have hypomanic episodes. Hypomania means “below mania,” and is considered a lesser form of mania. There are also mixed episodes, where a bipolar patient suffers a form of mania and depression at once.

teenager
Three teenage boys playing on a guitar. Credit to flickr.com user chiesADIbeinasco.
Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Common Symptoms

Teen-onset bipolar disorder is similar to adult-onset. Adolescents suffer similar symptoms to adults. Here are the symptoms of manic, hypomanic, and depressive episodes in teens:

Mania Hypomania Depression
  • Racing speech and thoughts
  • Increased energy
  • Decreased need for sleep
  • Elevated mood and excessive cheerfulness
  • Increased physical and mental activity
  • Hypersexuality
  • Reckless and risk-taking behaviors
  • Drop in grades
  • Irritability, aggressive behavior, and impatience
  • Excessive spending
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Grandiosity
  • Productivity
  • Exuberant and elated mood
  • Decreased need for sleep
  • Elevated mood and excessive cheerfulness
  • Unusual confidence
  • Hypersexuality
  • Reckless and risk-taking behaviors
  • Extreme focus on projects at work or at home
  • Increased creativity
  • Anhedonia – loss of interest or pleasure in normally enjoyable activities
  • Sadness or irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Shame or guilt
  • Sleeping too much or insomnia
  • Drop in grades
  • Loss of appetite or overeating
  • Anger, worry, and anxiety
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

But there is one crucial difference between teenagers and adults who suffer bipolar disorder: teenagers tend to be rapid cyclers, which means they suffer mood episodes more frequently than adults. Adults typically vacillate between defined episodes of hypomania, mania, and depression, with periods of wellness in between lasting from weeks to years. But teenagers vacillate between extreme mood states within hours to days, with very few periods of wellness in between. Teens are similar to children with regard to rapid cycling.

Irritability and Rage

Teens who suffer from bipolar disorder can exhibit irritability during both manic and depressive phases, just like children and adults. For teenagers, irritability can be a constant issue during the manic phase. Like children, teens are more likely than adults to become irritable. Unlike most children and adults, however, adolescents who present with irritability are more likely to be hostile, and even violent.

Slamming doors, yelling, and even telling parents that they hate them is normal for many teenagers, and they recover quickly. But a bipolar teen’s rage is much more extreme. He or she might not be able to calm down for days to weeks. They may hit themselves or others, or break possessions. Adolescents suffering from mania may think their parents are out to get them, to the point where the teens hide in their rooms or throw away their phones. In extreme cases, teens may end up psychotic, where they engage in delusions, hear voices, or see things that aren’t there. If your teen is acting paranoid or psychotic, he or she may need to be hospitalized.

Issues with School

School may be more difficult for teenagers with bipolar disorder than those without. High school forces teens to keep a very rigid schedule, and there is a lot of pressure to perform. If hospitalized, they may miss school and must catch up, resulting in more stress due to missed workload. 

Social navigation can also trouble teens. For teenagers, explaining their bipolar disorder to their friends may be next to impossible. Teens with bipolar might suffer guilt or shame after an episode, which makes dealing with their illness even more difficult, and may impact their friendships.

Solutions/Taking Action

If you can’t tell if your teen suffers from bipolar disorder and you have doubts, it’s okay to consult a doctor. Get a referral from your child’s pediatrician to a behavioral therapist or child psychologist. Refer to the symptom chart, and describe your teen’s manic and depressive symptoms to the doctors. There’s no neon sign over your child’s head that will tell you definitively that your teen has a mood disorder. But if you have suspicions, getting a psychiatric evaluation for your teen is the best step you can take. A diagnosis may help both you and your teen as you parent during his or her adolescence. For more on what to do if your child is bipolar, click here.

Parenting a bipolar teen may be extra difficult. You need to teach him or her how to manage extreme emotional states, and how to deal with his or her rage in a constructive manner. But don’t give up. Dig in now and keep looking for help. There used to be few resources for dealing with mood disorders; now there are plenty.

Even with help, these are going to be difficult years. Finding a balance may be tricky. But there is hope for teenagers with bipolar disorder. Bipolar is one of the most treatable disorders. With talk therapy, and possibly medication, your teen can live a healthy and fulfilling life. You can raise a successful bipolar adults, but first you need to get through the teen years.

I wish you luck in your journey.

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