A Short Guide for Parents of Adult Children with Bipolar Disorder
I am addressing those parents whose young adult and adult children have already been diagnosed with Bipolar. Do not use this article to diagnose your child. I am not a doctor. I am also not a parent. Instead, I am speaking from the lived experience of being a young adult diagnosed with Bipolar and what my parents did right, and what they could have done better.
If you ever google “How Can I Help my Bipolar Child,” you are given a list of very practical and useful tips:
- Follow the medication schedule. You absolutely must make sure that your child gets the medication they need for bipolar disorder.
- Monitor side effects.
- Talk to your child’s teachers.
- Keep a routine.
- Consider family therapy.
- Take suicidal threats seriously.
Follow these tips! But these are more for what I consider the triage or survival stage. When I spoke at a NAMI support group for parents of adult children with mental illness a few years ago in Northern California, I shared some tips for the long-haul journey, think more sustainability phase.
I am going to start with the most important.
Have Hope Bipolar is Manageable
Healing from mental illness requires a long journey of acceptance. First, those with mental illness must accept who we have become. We must learn to accept disability and learn to live with stigma. We must learn not to hate ourselves for what we might perceive as weakness. Maybe we will even know through the process of accepting our illness that what we thought of as weakness has brought us strength. We might learn to love ourselves more for enduring hardship, becoming strong, and gaining wisdom. Have hope for your loved ones.
Educate Yourself about Bipolar Disorder
The best thing you can do for your child and yourself is to learn as much as you can. Check out courses like NAMI Basics or NAMI Family-to-Family, which are led by family members of people with mental illness, like the one I spoke at in California, and teach you everything you need to know. You can share these resources with your child or other family members, but remember that this is their journey. You may want to discuss what you have read and learned, but they may not want to. Do not start using recently discovered jargon and labeling your child – “You must be hypomanic,” etc. Do ask questions.
This is Their Journey
You are not your child’s doctor. You are not their therapist. They may or may not be open with you about their struggles. While it’s crucial never to enable unhealthy behaviors—like turning a blind eye to drug use—it’s equally important to remember your son or daughter’s choices are not your fault. It can be tough to confront such issues head-on, but compassionately addressing problems shows love and concern and may encourage your kid to get help. Consider joining a support group.
No Room For Blame
Dealing with mental illness is very difficult not only for the patient but the entire family. Do not make it more difficult by looking to place blame on yourself or others. More often than not, there is a genetic component to the disorder. Blaming yourself or your partner for passing on the gene only adds to the feelings of shame or stigma that your child may be feeling.
Do not blame yourself, as the parent, loved one, or caregiver for not noticing sooner. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), symptoms of bipolar disorder typically first appear around age 25 (although they can sometimes emerge earlier), which can make navigating this condition’s unknowns extra tricky for parents. In hindsight, I first experienced symptoms in my late teens, but there is no way my parents could have known. I was in therapy twice a week in my mid-twenties before being diagnosed, and it was tough for a professional even to identify.
Enjoy Each other
If you have a relationship with your adult child – enjoy! Go shopping, go to the moves, play golf. If your child is in the throes of depression or mania, then refer back to the triage steps and your support group for help. If your child is in a stable place – live life. If you are curious, now is the time to ask questions about what it feels like to be manic or depressed. I know enough now that I can identify early warnings signs and have shared them with my loved ones to keep an eye out for me. Repair and build your relationship. This will help you become part of the integral support system your child needs.
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