My 14 year old son recently came to me and asked me, “Mom, are you bipolar?” When I said yes, he said, “Mom, what is bipolar?” I stammered and stuttered and couldn’t really come up with a good answer for him. How do you answer this question when your kids start asking about your bipolar diagnosis?
Being a parent can be difficult, and being a parent with bipolar disorder can be even more difficult as it presents its own set of unique challenges. As a parent with bipolar, you may have asked yourself whether you should tell your child/children about your disorder. In my experience in working with children and adolescents I think it is best to tell them. Generally speaking most kids will eventually know that there is something not right with their bipolar parent/s but they often cannot make sense of it. Therefore it is important that you talk with them about the illness, explaining what it is and how it can affect your everyday living.
In dealing with children on any issue it is wise to explain things at an age appropriate level. For instance you would explain your illness to your 5 year old much differently than you would to a 10 year old or a teenager. With a 5 year old you may say something like; “your mommy has an illness that can make her sick sometimes. My illness is called bipolar disorder and it can make mommy sick some days. One day mommy may be ok and feeling good but on another day mommy could feel sick and not be able to do a lot. I take medicine from the doctor to help make me feel better but sometimes the medicine doesn’t always work. It is not your fault that I have this illness and I don’t want you to be sad or worried about it. If I get too sick I may have to go to the hospital but there are doctors and nurses there to help me get better.” As your child/children age their fears and questions will likely be different and will require more elaborate answers from you. If you continue to educate yourself on bipolar disorder not only will you be able to provide some good answers for your children but it will help you better manage your disorder as well.
Basically if you can talk to your child about it like you would any other topic you should be able to help them understand. Your child may have some fears about it and a lot of questions. Try to reassure your child by talking about any fears that they have. If you also let your child know about what you can and cannot do that is often helpful for them, it tends to lessen some of the confusion. It is also a good idea to tell children about your bipolar when you are well. It will be less stressful for you and easier to answer any questions they may have. If they have a question that you are unable to answer it would be wise to be honest and say “I don’t know the answer to that question but I will try and find out for you.” You may have to do some research or talk with others or even a counsellor or your doctor to find the answer out. However in doing so you will show your child that you can now answer their question and that will reassure them that much more.
Unfortunately there is a fair amount of “stigma” in society with regards to mental illness, including bipolar disorder. Because of this many children will be exposed to some inaccurate information and negative comments about any given illness. It is important to explain to children that some people do not understand about your illness and can say some really mean things. Encourage your child to tell you about this if it occurs and it likely will, so be prepared. At least that way you can discuss with your child any confusion or upsetting feelings that they may have as a result of a negative comment about you and/or your illness. Also keep in mind that children can hear negative connotations about mental illness through the media, particularly on television shows and in the movies. Another way to keep the lines of communication open with your child/children is to have weekly family meetings. These meetings do not have to center around your bipolar disorder they can include any topic of conversation that may help everyone in the family with any problems that may have arisen over the course of the week. Encourage your children to openly ask questions about mom or dad’s moods and behavior if there was something that occurred during the week that was related to your bipolar disorder.
When first telling children about your illness it is likely best to talk to them on an individual basis. This will not only increase your bond with each child but will also make it easier for the child to listen and learn about your bipolar. Also each child may respond or react differently while you are explaining things to them. It will be easier for you and the child to discuss things on a one to one basis. In addition the individual time spent should make it easier for your child to come to you in the future with any fears or concerns they may be having regarding your illness.
Other things that you can do to help explain bipolar disorder to children is to use resources such as books and mental health websites. For example there is a book called “The Rainbow Angels” by Madeleine Kelly which is a story that helps explain bipolar disorder to children. You may also want to call a local mental health clinic to see if they can provide any information to you. Sometimes clinics will have fact sheets or brochures on mental illness that can be helpful. Some areas may even have a support group for bipolar parents and/or support groups for the children of bipolar parents. Words of caution if you are looking for information on the internet, not all sites are reliable or accurate. Some sites that may be helpful to you are: the Center for Addiction and Mental Health at www.camh.net, it has a section called “Explaining Bipolar Disorder to Children.” Another resource is the National Network of Adult and Adolescent Children Who Have Mentally Ill Parent/s at http://nnaami.org/.
And last but not least be sure to let your child/children know that you love them no matter what, unconditional love will be very beneficial to them especially in times of trouble.