Question: How does one help an adolescent or pre-adolescent child understand and live with a parent who has bipolar disorder and remains unstable?
Web Resources

My mother does not have bipolar disorder (or does she?), but she is very self righteous and can do no wrong, everything is everyone else's fault and my dad was the bad guy (actually he wasn't) but the brainwashing I received as a child, while living with her, left me believing this for many years. No matter what I say, my mother will always twist and turn it back to me to make me look and feel bad. The terrible actions and decisions she made for herself, in the name of "her pursuit of happiness" left us kids feeling confused and feeling abondoned. Here are a few things I've learned in dealing with her, some things I wish someone would have shared with me when I was young and under her care and influence.

Honestly, I don't know if any of this will help anyone. I just had a huge fight with my mom and my twin sister had to remind me of the above list - she's one of my safe people.

One of the things that my husband did was tell a few people that he had bipolar disorder. Broadcasting "Hey, I am mentally ill" was not something that we wanted to advertise. But the people that he did pick to tell have some history with mental illness and alcoholics and drug addicts in their past. They all have some history of being a child and living with craziness. And they will ask my son how things are going at home with dad. I have learned to accept that my husband needs friends of his own, so he can share.

One of them shared with my son a part of her upbringing. I asked my son how the conversation got started and he said, she asked about how things were with dad. It was nice of her to care, and to offer herself as a friend to my son, and to let him know that he is not alone.

One of the things that I do is talk with them about craziness and about God and trying to instill in them that they are okay, and that God is large and in charge. We also have the support of friends in church.

But it was nice for my son to hear about some thing that happened to another family becuase one of the things that we tend to do is withdraw and shut people out becuase we don't want them to know what is going on, but sometimes, as kids, we need to reach out. And that was something I learned I had to let my kids do - reach out to others - whether it was friends or other adults.

My concern is for my daughter because she is a stuffer. But for my son - when he asked, "mom, can I share with X (his friend) because he is going through some stuff too and it would be nice to let him know that I been through some stuff" I had to repent from asking him to not "talk" about home life. His friend has it worse. He has a dad that is so mean to him. At least my son knows his dad loves him and will hug and love both our kids when he is around -- that is the key - when he is around.

The kids really have focused on one symptom of bipolar disorder in my husband, which is that he lies a lot. So when lying came up I didn't say it was that. I redirected them and said that I didn't understand why daddy does it sometimes, but that I didn't like it either, understood how they felt, and said it was a good lesson for them to learn that it is always best to be truthful people because they know how it feels when someone lies, and not many people like spending time with people who lie alot.

The other thing I did was get my children very far away from their father. I think this has been good for them and they are really settling in nicely in our new lives. I think it is important for people still in a relationship where one person has bipolar disorder (who also refuses treatment and remains very unstable) to really consider how healthy it is for you to stay. I know custody struggles can be long and difficult, but at very least start documenting these things, try like hell to get them into a hospital and start rearranging life so that the child is not left alone with the unstable parent. So,if the child is a toddler or under school age, try to get them into preschool. But I say document document document, for either hospital purposes or in worst case court purposes. It was how I was able to get my children to a healthier place.

There is something I read in this vein but I can't remember if it was specific for kids living with an MI parent or perhaps it was about kids with divorce or other stress in the home. The finding was that kids with outside support including adults outside the immediate family were more resilient. Also the kids that weathered the problems best had a passionate interest outside the home - sports, dance or job.

I think the message was that kids need other things to hang onto outside of the family to keep seeing the world as a good place. And it is relaxing and recharging for them to have good parts to their lives outside of the problem areas at home.

I'm no expert by any means, but I think the most imprtant thing to do for a child who has seen a lot is to make sure they are processing what has happened and not stuffing and leaving it there to fester the rest of their lives. Talking about how they are feeling and acknowledging that how they are feeling is ok, and they can feel two opposite feelings at the same time about the same subject and while it might be confusing its perfectly ok. I think having an outlet for some of the anger that is bound to come up, such as teaching when you are stressed it's more healthy to go work out or be productive, versus eating or drinking or whatever. Kids learn coping mechanisms very early on, and they can show in watching TV too much or reading or video games. Just like some of us would like to go to the Bahamas when things are rough, kids like to escape too. Not sure if that all made sense or it its helpful, but there is my two cents.

I grew up with a father who had bipolar disorder and did not take medication. My childhood was confused and unvalidated. I resented my mother for seeming cold and busy. I sought approval from my father, and, subsequently, other male figures. I saw my father as the "fun one" while my mother never cracked a smile (how could she, looking back).

I guess I've repeated the pattern by marrying someone with bipolar disorder.

Our own kids are 1, 3 and 4. My resources are myself, being superwoman, covering, dodging, protecting, explaining. And I realize that's pretty insufficient. I just don't have anything else. I combat my husband's behavior for my children's sake by:

  1. My own stability: I am on an antidepressant and I see my own therapist regularly. I force myself to rest, let certain responsibilities slide and use this forum [bpso] for venting and education.
  2. Consistency in parenting my children. I have to be doubly organized.
  3. Limiting HIS impact on their events: life goes on whether their father participates or not. Guard against showing my negative reponse to HIS behavior in front of them.
  4. Instilling self worth in my kids: that they are whole whether they get validation or not.
  5. Identifying emotion and teaching proper responses through flash cards; relating their emotion to an actual experience they had.
  6. Extra love. Understanding their frustration and reassuring them when things are confusing.
  7. Limiting our kids' time with daddy when he is cycling. Maximizing time when he is healthy.
  8. Reinforcing their father's love for them through pictures, stories and memories.
  9. Validate them myself. De-emphasize their dad's innapropriate reactions by filling in my own (hopefully appropriate ones). Explaining to them that daddy is having a 'loud head' day.
  10. Finding a positive male role model when their father is absent. (our pastor does this once a month).
  11. Quietly "prompt" my husband beforehand by updating him on circumstances with our kids and what how he needs to properly respond to them -- i.e., "Your son is really proud of his award from school, could you remind him he did a great job?"
  12. Limiting their exposure to possible red flags: i.e., my husband wants us all to go shopping and no one has had lunch first.

Learned through the school of hard shocks, and still learning ... here is what I have to pass on ....