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Parenting a Child with Early-Onset Bipolar Disorder

Parenting a Child with Early-Onset Bipolar Disorder

There is a huge difference between typical teenage behavior & behavior that is symptomatic of bipolar disorder. A bipolar teenager will display both, & it may be difficult at first for parents to tell the difference. As a rule, it is usually a matter of extremes.

For example, it is normal for teenagers to feel sadness over disappointments, yet they bounce back in a reasonable amount of time. A teenager with bipolar disorder, on the other hand, might fall into a deep depression, isolating themselves & crying excessively. They might turn their unhappiness on themselves & say things like, “I’m worthless & unlovable” or “I would be better off dead.” If psychotic symptoms are experienced, voices may repeat these negative statements with increased intensity. Suicide may even be attempted.

During an argument, it is normal for the average teenager to yell, slam their door, & even tell their parents, “I hate you!” But they will usually come out for dinner a few hours later feeling better. A teenager experiencing a bipolar disorder mood swing, however, might not be able to calm themselves down for a very long time, & their response can be much more extreme. They may become paranoid or psychotic, thinking their parents are out to get them.

Dating, drinking, staying up all night studying, talking back to parents, & getting excited about a project are all typical teenage behaviors. These behaviours are symptoms of bipolar when these behaviours go to intense extremes; for example, going days without sleeping. Manic/ Hypomanic episodes may be mistaken for being extremely hyper & outgoing.

A parent can help their teenager learn to recognize their symptoms, but they must first learn how to communicate effectively with a teenager with bipolar disorder. The first step is to understand that when a teenager is in the midst of a bipolar disorder mood swing—whether it’s psychosis, mania, depression, or anxiety—they will often say things they don’t mean, don’t believe, & would never say when healthy. It’s important to respond to the illness, rather than the symptoms.

For example, a typical response by a parent to hearing their teenager say they are a failure & want to die might be, “You’re not a failure! Why are you so unhappy? So many people love you.” Talking this way simply doesn’t work, as it doesn’t address the real problem, which is the illness itself. Rather, a more appropriate response might be, “I hear you & I know you’re depressed. You have bipolar disorder & this is normal. I’ve seen you like this before. Let’s do X, which we know helps you when you are feeling this way.” This response addresses the real issue & leads to great progress in communicating with your child & managing the illness successfully.

Bipolar disorder is a compulsive illness, &, until a teenager with bipolar disorder learns to recognize their symptoms & differentiate between when they are experiencing a mood swing & when they are healthy/ stable, they can & often will make decisions that have dangerous consequences. These include decisions around sex, relationships, school, & drugs & alcohol.

Teenagers with bipolar disorder can get better, but they definitely need help from others. Parents need to learn as much as they can about the illness, including the various bipolar medications & how they work. It’s important to learn the difference between average teenage behaviour & bipolar-influenced behaviour. Learning to communicate is crucial, particularly when the teenager is in a mood episode. The goal is to help the teenager talk about bipolar disorder in order to better understand themselves & what they need to stay healthy.

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