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Raising a Family When You Have Bipolar I Disorder

Open communication, coupled with self-care and a plan in place before a BD-I episode strikes, can help bring harmony to your home. Updated Dec 7, 2023 By Amy Marturana Winderl Keeping a family functioning, happy, and healthy is a lot of work, full stop. Even on the best of days, working with a partner (or riding solo) to raise kids and keep a household running can feel like a marathon. Now try navigating all that and bipolar 1 disorder (BD-I). For those who live and parent with this condition, it can feel like an ultra-marathon on rocky terrain in the Swiss Alps that you never had the chance to train for.

“Parenting and being a spouse are universally challenging roles,” says Michele Green, a licensed psychotherapist in Las Vegas, NV, and clinical director at Insight Therapy Solutions. “For those with BD-I, the additional layer of managing mood swings and medication can make these roles even more complex.”

While mental illness adds an extra sticky layer to a relationship and family, it’s something that you can certainly work around. “A lot of people with bipolar disorder have completely normal families,” says Philip Lam, D.O., a doctor of osteopathic medicine and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson, AZ.

Planning ahead, solid communication, and a commitment to self-care can all go a very long way in keeping you and your family happy and healthy, Dr. Lam says, even if bipolar disorder is that annoying aunt that sometimes shows up uninvited to cause drama. You can prepare for that unwanted visit—and then get through it with familial harmony maintained—with the following expert tips. Plan Ahead Plan Ahead for Yourself and Your Loved Ones If your bipolar I disorder is well-managed, it’s likely not a factor in your family’s day-to-day—until an episode strikes. Understanding what can happen in that situation, and having an emergency plan in place, is important. “This might include identifying a safe space in your home, a go-to support person, or a specific relaxation technique,” Green suggests. That means discussing with your family is advance what you’d like to happen, Dr. Lam advises, when you’re in the middle of an episode. Let your partner know the behaviors to look for—such as manic symptoms including decreased sleep, an unusually upbeat or wired mood, or distractibility—that signal a severe episode, and what you’d like them to do if they notice them. For example, should your partner call a mental health provider? A crisis response center? Or even 911? You can also put together a legal document, called a psychiatric advance directive, that states your preferences for treatment, should you need it when you’re not in a sound psychological state to make good decisions. Another thing to pre-game: childcare. If you’re experiencing an episode, is there somewhere else the kids can go for a few days (like a grandparent’s house, or another trusted adult’s place) so they can be cared for while you focus on getting yourself better? Maybe this can also free-up your partner to focus on helping you. Whatever the plan is, discussing it ahead of time will ensure everyone is comfortable with how things shake out when a BD-I episode happens, our experts agree. Talk About It Talk About Bipolar So Your Kids Understand You’ll also want to talk with your children about what bipolar disorder is, and why it might make Mom or Dad behave in seemingly strange ways sometimes. Green says there’s no best age to discuss it, but if your child understands the idea of going to the doctor for check-ups or has seen family members dealing with minor health issues, then they are likely developmentally ready to learn about bipolar disorder. It’s important to tell your kids about BD-I for multiple reasons, Green says. “Children need consistency and routine, which is difficult when someone is going through bipolar disorder. Depending on the severity of the mood imbalance, kids could be seeing behavior from a parent that is confusing,” she explains. Additionally, educating your kid in a developmentally appropriate way can strengthen the bond between a child and a parent with BD-I, she adds. Another benefit? “Bipolar disorder is heavily stigmatized, so learning about it [as a young person] can shape the future adults of the world” and their attitudes about this condition—and potentially, other mental health disorders, as well. When explaining bipolar disorder to a young child (aged 6 to 10), Green says you’ll want to make clear that BD-I is a medical condition that people can’t see but still need a doctor for to feel better. “Kids this age are looking at the world through a lens where if someone feels bad, they usually can ‘see’ it, like [with] a wheelchair or someone with flu symptoms,” Green explains. She also recommends finding a kids’ book that explains chronic illness (like this one, called Mama’s Waves) in a way that is developmentally appropriate. As for what not to say, Green says it’s important to avoid phrases like “Dad gets crazy sometimes.” She also cautions against using the word bipolar casually—for example, saying, “the weather is bipolar today.” These just perpetuate the stigma against BD-I and won’t help your child gain an appropriate and full understanding of the condition. If you need help speaking with your child about BD-I, a therapist or child psychologist can be a huge help, Green adds. Be a Team Approach Managing Your BD-I as a Team As important as it is for you to support your family’s efforts to understand your BD-I, it’s equally as important to feel like your loved ones are supporting you. Dr. Lam recommends surrounding yourself with people who lift you up and avoiding people who are difficult or not supportive. Educating both your immediate and extended family members (if they are a regular part of your life) about bipolar disorder—and specifically, your experience with BD-I, including your triggers and what you may need from your loved ones when symptoms arise—can help them better help you, Green adds. “Communication is always central to any relationship,” agrees Renee Solomon, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and clinical director and CEO of Forward Recovery in Los Angeles, CA. “It is essential to be able to talk about bipolar episodes openly.” Part of this is sharing your triggers for a manic or depressive episode, as well as the symptoms that signal your mood has become unstable. “Make it clear that you can plan ahead and work on it together, so that you’re not causing your partner to feel like they’re in charge of this,” Dr. Lam advises. Approaching it as a team and family unit can help everyone feel supported, he adds. Doing so “helps them understand your needs and moods,” says Green. And while BD-I definitely shouldn’t be the topic of every dinnertime conversation, neither should you shy away from talking about how you feel, or from being honest and vulnerable. Your loved ones can’t read your mind, and they won’t be able to help if they don’t know what’s going on and how you’re feeling. Practice Self-Care Don’t Forget Self-Care When an airplane loses cabin pressure, you’re told to strap on your own oxygen mask before helping others. (If you’re incapacitated, you can’t assist your loved ones, or so the reasoning goes.) The same applies for BD-I. It’s not selfish to follow these self-care tips to help keep bipolar symptoms in check—for you and your family:
  • Get the right treatment—then follow your Rx closely. “The most important piece with bipolar disorder is medicating it properly,” says Solomon. “The right medication cuts down on the cycling between depression and mania.” Taking your meds consistently is important, too, she adds, since skipping doses can cause a relapse in symptoms or even medication withdrawal. “It is very dangerous to stop any bipolar disorder medication cold turkey,” she adds. And don’t forget talk therapy, says Green. “Regular check-ins with a mental health professional are crucial,” she says.
  • Stick to a routine. “Consistency in daily routines can provide stability for people with bipolar disorder,” Green says. A routine can give you a sense of control and reduce stress. It also helps keep your body clock, or circadian rhythm, steady—an important piece of managing bipolar I, according to research in Current Psychiatry Reports.
  • Make you time. Taking care of yourself is important for preventing manic or depressive episodes, Dr. Lam says. Part of that means making space to pursue personal hobbies, exercise regularly, and follow relaxation techniques, Green adds. This can be easier said than done when a partner and children are involved, and you may even feel guilty for taking the time for yourself, but remember: Prioritizing your well-being is essential and will ultimately benefit everyone you love, she adds.
  • Track your moods. Green recommends mood-tracking (keeping a log) and mood-reporting (going over it with a therapist or someone else you trust) as a key coping skill for BD-I. “This gives you a way to learn your mood patterns that you can then speak to your partner about,” she explains. “By being able to understand your patterns, bipolar disorder becomes more recognizable and predictable.”
Family Harmony Family Harmony With BD-I Yes, BD-I can sometimes be disruptive to your life. But your relationships and family dynamics do not have to be defined by it. “Remember, BD-I is a journey, not a destination. It’s about finding balance, understanding personal triggers, and building a supportive network,” Green says. “With patience, understanding, and the right tools, managing family life and bipolar disorder is not just possible—it can be a pathway to a deeply fulfilling life.” This article was originally published December 6, 2023 and most recently updated December 7, 2023.

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