A Barrier of Parental Love: The Relationships of Parents With Bipolar Disorder

Just as bipolar disorder is unique to each individual that experiences it, the relationships to those with bipolar disorder are unique as well. For a child, being raised by a parent with bipolar disorder can be stressful, confusing and sometimes traumatic. For parents with bipolar disorder, raising children can be exhausting, intimidating, and shameful. Familial relationships are complicated as it is; the ups and downs of bipolar disorder can make matters more complex and difficult for everyone involved. Self-care and open discussion are crucial for those impacted by bipolar disorder in families.

Being raised by a parent struggling with bipolar disorder can be extremely difficult. The experience of a child being raised by a parent with this disorder can vary. Some children may never even know that their parent has a mental illness, while for others it is very apparent. It all depends on how the parent is coping with the disorder. If left undiagnosed or untreated, the actions of parents with bipolar disorder can have lasting impacts on their children because of the inner turmoil they’re experiencing. Seeing a parent go through the roller coaster ride that is bipolar disorder can be extremely confusing for a child. Some children, like Satya, try to bury and avoid the struggles of growing up with a parent suffering from this disorder. When Satya was young, she recalls running to her room and hiding during her father’s intense manic episodes. Similarly, she would simply avoid her father during his episodes of depression. Other children try to help and confront the struggles head on. Michelle took an active role in trying to help her mother who struggled with bipolar disorder. She would stay home from school when her mother was too depressed to leave bed. Having such a large responsibility and stress at a young age had a great impact on her going forward. The issues that can arise from being raised by a parent struggling with bipolar disorder can be lifelong. Children of parents with bipolar disorder are more likely to attempt suicide, abuse substances, engage in risky sexual behavior, and behave aggressively. Additionally, children may have issues establishing relationships, experience financial stress, and experience severe emotional distress. Many of these symptoms are linked to trauma from childhood. This trauma can happen from abuse and negative environments brought on by a parent with bipolar disorder. The experience of a child growing up with a parent who has bipolar disorder can be quite contradictory. Satya recalls the confusion she experienced as a child, “Despite the love my father had for me, he would mimic a school bully at times, as if an impersonator devoid of compassion took his place” (Khare, 2016). Although a parent may deeply love their child, bipolar disorder can change the way they behave and raise their child. Looking beyond the diagnosis and struggles of bipolar disorder is extremely important for children to do once they grow old enough to understand. Bipolar disorder can be a boundary between a parent’s love and their child.

There is this idea that just because a parent has a mental illness, their child automatically has a mental illness as well. Not only is this false, but it can also be harmful to both the child and parent. Being raised or born by a person with bipolar disorder does not specifically indicate that the offspring will have the same disorder. However, there is a genetic component to bipolar disorder. A child who has one parent diagnosed with bipolar disorder has between a 15% and 30% likelihood of being diagnosed. A child who has two parents with bipolar disorder has between a 50% and 75% chance of being diagnosed. Although bipolar disorder is fairly hereditary, there can be other causes as well, including brain structure and environmental factors. When raising a child with a strong connection to bipolar disorder, it is a good idea to complete a screening to recognize the disorder earlier. Bipolar disorder has a high hereditary component so it is important to share family history with a doctor, as the diagnosis often comes sooner and easier.

Parenting with bipolar disorder can be very difficult. The fatigue and lack of motivation associated with depressive episodes can make it hard to do anything, especially care for a child. The presence of intense, high energy manic episodes can make it difficult for a middle schooler to concentrate on his work at home. Growing up with a parent who has bipolar disorder can be difficult for a child to understand. Having open conversations about bipolar disorder between the parent and child can be extremely beneficial regarding the child’s understanding of his or her parent’s actions or feelings. Establishing that the parent is mentally ill and not acting or feeling a certain way because they want to or because they don’t love the child is crucial. Children have a lot of questions and so communication is very important. The best way to keep bipolar disorder from getting in the way of a relationship is to seek treatment. Similar to any other illness, alleviating symptoms can make things better for everyone involved. People with bipolar disorder can be amazing parents, they just have to treat their symptoms. Having a child is a strong motivation to stick with treatment and try to establish a better quality of life. Lynn, a mother of a 12 year old boy, began struggling with bipolar disorder shortly after having her son. She describes having extremely intense episodes and being unable to control her actions. She struggled for years to find the right treatment for her. Once she did, she was able to establish a better relationship with her son. “Since 2012, I have had no issues with my disorder interfering with my ability to be a great parent. The key to being a great parent is to make sure you’re healthy first. Make sure you take your medication regularly and as prescribed, get plenty of sleep, eat healthy, and try to exercise” (Ulrich, 2016). When you’re healthy, your relationships will be healthy, especially relationships with your children. Importantly, parents with bipolar disorder need to be able to trust in themselves that they are capable and doing a good job. It is important to recognize that people with bipolar disorder are not automatically putting the child in a negative situation, simply by making the decision to have children knowing of their disorder.

Reaching out and getting help is important. It is important not only for the person who has the disorder, but for their family and friends who have been impacted as well. Getting help can manifest itself in many different ways including going to therapy, talking to a friend, or talking things through with family members. Michelle struggled to heal from her childhood trauma, which was living with her mother who suffered from bipolar disorder. She has overcome the difficulties of her upbringing and recognizes the importance of getting help and talking about the issue. “There’s been too much silence around this issue, too much hush-hush, too much stigma. I want to cause conversations to happen, so people realize that having a mental illness is just like having heart disease or any other health condition—it’s not anything to be ashamed of. The more we talk about it, the more people will get the help they need for loved ones or themselves” (Dickinson-Moravek, n.d.). Overall, good communication and treatment would strongly benefit any family that has a parent with bipolar disorder.



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