Being a Parent with Bipolar & Raising a child that has Bipolar

By James Heaton

So, I have bipolar disorder. And I’m a parent of three kids. And one of my kids has bipolar disorder. This is the ultimate trifecta in parenting. I’m quite sure my kids could write books about what its like to have a dad who is bipolar and how its affected them and their lives. But I can’t speak for them.
What I can speak about is what its like to be a parent who has bipolar disorder, and what it’s like to raise a bipolar child. But not just from the perspective of a parent raising a bipolar child but from my perspective of a child that was raised by parents who had no knowledge of the disorder. Bear with me, as this is a tricky one!

Here’s the basics, I’m 49 and I’ve lived my entire life with bipolar disorder. I was diagnosed in 1996 with OCD and bipolar disorder. One year later my youngest daughter was born. She wasn’t diagnosed until she was in high school.

First off, what its like to be a parent with bipolar.

Kids are a journey that no one should take lightly. Everything we do as a parent has a lasting impact on a child, regardless of if they are bipolar or not. Its always imperative that you consider what you say and do, as it has a way of sticking with the kids throughout their life.

How do you tell your child that you are bipolar? The best way is to be honest. Depending on their age, sit them down and explain that mommy or daddy has a medical condition with their brain and sometimes we get angry or loud or sad. But its okay, because we are working hard to deal with this and its not for them to worry about. Its not contagious, its not going to kill you but sometimes you might need to go to the hospital to get stronger and that is perfectly okay. Let them know its okay to worry about you but that you see a doctor and you take medicine. The sooner they learn, the easier it is for them to understand.
Its also a great opportunity to educate your child on stigmas and name calling. Referring to people as crazy or using the word bipolar to describe a person who is emotional should be discouraged. Many of the adults that use the term crazy to address mental illness learned it from their parents. Children need to understand that mental illness is common. Everyone gets sad, some people get very sad and its called depression. As with any medical condition its good to show patience and concern.

Because bipolar disorder affects our emotions, we need to interact with our children in a way that doesn’t involve our emotions. Avoid disciplining your child if you are not in a good frame of mind. Its perfectly okay to tell your child, I will deal with this situation when I am clear headed.

With this in mind, yelling or hitting your child is never okay. Being stern and yelling are two different things, and you should never interact with your child if you are unable to tell the difference. Any decision you make as a parent needs more thought because you are bipolar.

Its okay to say, I need time to think about how I feel or I’m not clear right now and I will sleep on this and get back to you. Its also okay to take a step back and let your partner take control. Its better to know your limits than to hurt your child. This requires communication between parents, and it would be helpful to come to an agreement before the need arises.

Kids have a way of getting under your skin and pushing the worst parts of you to the top. But that’s what kids do, its how they learn boundaries. Explain to them how you feel when your mad, or when you feel like losing control. Allow them to see this side of you. Help them to be part of the treatment.

If your child sees you in a bipolar breakdown, be it up or down, it is something you should address. Explain to them that sometimes you get very excited and say things that you don’t mean. If they see you breaking down, teach them its okay to cry and sometimes it helps. Children need to see us as real people and understand that its not their fault and they we are trying.

When my kids were 1yr, 5yr, 9yr old (youngest to oldest) I had an enormous breakdown. Going through a divorce with their mother, unable to make good decisions and unmedicated, I left the US and moved to the Bahamas for a year and a half. That time away allowed me to find myself mentally and collectively return home and begin treatment. I limited my time with them until I was on medication and actively seeing a doctor and counselor. I was in no way able to be a father to them during that time. And although it caused a certain amount of damage, I was able to reenter their lives and grow as a parent. I feel to this day I did the right thing, because I was extremely self-destructive during that period and exposure to me would have done more damage than my absence.

I did my share of yelling and breaking things in anger, but I learned from those moments and altered my reactions to things. At 49, my youngest child is 20 and I have been many different people to him. The person he knows now, doesn’t raise his voice, and always tries to be as logical as possible. It took a lot of growth to be that person.

The important thing is to never stop trying, never stop growing. As a bipolar parent we will go through many different versions of ourselves as long as we are actively seeking treatment and growing in our lives. This teaches our children that growth is essential and that its okay to change.

Raising a bipolar child as a bipolar parent

This one isn’t exactly easy. There was a point when I was in a bad place, and my bipolar daughter moved in with my wife and me. Our cycles did not align at all. I was up, she was down; she was up, I was down. But she saw me fail, and she saw me get up and try harder. She watched me go to the hospital when all I wanted to do was die. I taught her its okay to need help and seek it out. We have an amazing relationship now, and I am the first person she comes to when she needs help.

As a little girl she was very quiet, and often lost in her own world. She would get her feelings hurt easily and the effects of this lasted longer than it ever did with her older sister. It was always in the back of my mind that at least one of my children would be bipolar. I really never expected it to be her. But looking back there were warning signs that I didn’t see clearly.

Hindsight would have me examining my children’s feeling more than I did. Get inside their heads and ask them how they feel about things in their lives. Talk to them when they are sad, talk to them when they are happy.

As a bipolar teenager my daughter was not quite a mirror image of me as a teenager. I had rapid cycling, she did not. But she did react to emotions in a very intense way, and this was one of the signals that led me to believe she could be affected by this disorder. She always appeared like she had so much on her mind. Her depression would take over and then she began to self-harm, and I knew that she must have some issues that needed to be dealt with. She has been in counseling for years and I consider this to be extremely important.

Even if your child isn’t exhibiting mental health issues it’s a good idea to let them have a few visits with a counselor that you trust. People tend to open up to counselors about things that they would never say to you. And also consider that they might not be able to open up to you or your spouse easily.

All three of my children have been in counseling at one time or another. This has taught them a great deal of coping skills that others don’t have. Its best to let counseling be a first line of help instead of the last-ditch effort to fix a kid who is far beyond broken.

What its like to be a bipolar child

As a bipolar child I could never understand why the other kids were always so happy. I couldn’t understand why things hurt me so bad, emotionally. When I liked a girl, and she didn’t reciprocate those feelings it would crush me. And not just hurt my feelings but feel like my heart had been ripped out of my body and life would seem hopeless. At the age of ten a child should not be thinking of how to end their life. I grew up with a verbally and physically abusive father and that was extremely difficult, as many days I was left with a feeling of hopelessness and dread. It wasn’t uncommon for me to fixate on death for days on end. Bipolar people operate mostly in extremes, either I was very happy, or I was very sad, it isn’t often that I was in the middle.

I depended on objects for happiness, favorite toys, or favorite television shows. I lived in a deep fantasy, obsessed with Batman, Star Wars, Time Travel and Ernest Hemingway. It wasn’t uncommon for me to hide in my closet and listen to a song on repeat for hours. I could be entertained just staring at my toys, lost in my own mind. My mother knew if she couldn’t find me I was either in the top of my closet (that I converted to a mini room with my toys and comic books) or high up in the tree in the back yard. I craved safe sanctuary, away from conflict and danger.

I would regularly black out at school and do something that would get me into trouble, but I would be confused and not know what I had said or done. One minute I’m sitting in a circle with my friends and the next I’m in the corner for I don’t know what.

I did not handle stress well at all. In fourth grade I developed severe intestinal stress, mainly from the anxiety of my abusive father, I was hospitalized and suffered a ruptured appendix. I can also remember strong depersonalization. By this, I mean feeling like I was floating above my own body. I regularly would tell my mother that I was floating, but she had no idea what I was talking about. I was in my thirties when I read the first thing about depersonalization. Imagine living twenty-five plus years thinking that you were having out of body experiences as a child, but it turns out that it was your minds way of protecting you and removing you from a dangerous place.

At the age of seven I made it a point to question my mother as to the sharpest knife in the house, as I planned on stabbing myself in the chest at night to escape the nightmare that was father when he was angry.

And what could have been done differently to help me as a child?
Early attention to my mood swings, early visits to counselors and medication could have assisted me. I also suffered from dyslexia as a learning disability. But you do not know that you are bipolar or that you have dyslexia because that is all you have ever known and being able to alert someone that something is wrong is not feasible.

Dennis Miller once said, “How do I know the color blue to me is blue to you?” in reference to being high. When I heard this (it was my eleventh-grade school year, when Dennis Miller was on SNL) it made so much sense to me. How did I know that the way I felt was the way everyone else felt. This was the first time in my entire life that I questioned my mentality.

When I was in high school, it was an emotional roller coaster. Girlfriends, the pressure of keeping good grades when I had trouble comprehending everything, and the pressure of life after high school. I began using marijuana and alcohol in my junior year and it opened me up to an escape from my mental state. When I was high I could think better. When I was intoxicated I could relax. But once I got to college these escapes took hold of me. People with mental illness are more likely to develop abuse traits with substances than normal kids. I loved the escape, I longed for it daily. Every chance I had I was seeking some form of high. From heroin, to coke, to LSD and alcohol to smoking weed daily I did everything in my power to stay high. I sold things that meant a lot to me so I could buy drugs. I cashed out my meal plan at school so I could spend that money on drugs, all to escape from my own mind.

A few credits shy of my associates degree I was kicked out of school for my drug use, or mainly the things I did when I was high. It was a huge failure for me. I worked for years to be accepted at the finest art college in the country, and I destroyed it.

Early detection is so important for your child’s success. Learning to cope, developing skills to handle your mental health issues, understanding how bipolar disorder works, can lead to success for your child.
According to Black Dog Institute, bipolar disorder is frequently inherited, with genetic factors accounting for approximately 80% of the cause of the condition.

Bipolar disorder is the most likely psychiatric disorder to be passed down from family.

• If one parent has bipolar disorder, there’s a 10% chance that their child will develop the illness.
• If both parents have bipolar disorder, the likelihood of their child developing bipolar disorder rises to 40%.

As a new couple who is contemplating having children it is always wise to take into consideration that you (as a bipolar patient) can have a child who will develop bipolar disorder. But its not a death sentence, and it can be managed. Monitoring your child, engaging with your child regularly to understand how they think can alert you to any signs of mental health issues. And of course, there is always adoption, a person with bipolar disorder should not be punished for their disorder and they should never miss out on the having children out of fear of passing on their disorder.

But the beautiful take away from this, is you have the chance to be the parent you never had growing up. You have the chance to raise a child who loves themselves and accepts their difference and grows despite having a mental health disorder.

Patience and understanding can go a long ways with any child. Try to treat your child the way you would have wanted to be treated as a child. Love them and assure them that everything will work out. Life is hard. Life is harder if you’re bipolar. Life is even harder if you have bipolar and feel alone.

All Rights Reserved – Copyright James A. Heaton 2021


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