Parenting is a tough job. Even the most well-prepared, most patient and most emotionally stable parents have days when they feel overwhelmed by the demands of their children.
When you are living with bipolar disorder, the everyday challenges of raising children are only magnified. Not only do you need to focus on the needs of your offspring, you need to manage your own emotional state and ability to function. In fact, some people opt to forgo having their own family due to concerns about the demands that being a parent will place on them and what it means to be a bipolar parent.
However, having bipolar disorder does not mean that you can’t be a parent — or even a great parent. It does mean that you need to learn more about your disease and take precautions, such as taking medication to manage your symptoms.
The Challenges of Bipolar Parenting
One of the greatest concerns of any parent living with any type of physical or mental illness is “Will my child have the same problems?” It’s no different with bipolar disorder, as many parents worry that they will pass on the illness to their children.
According to a study at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, children who have parents with bipolar disorder do have a greater risk of developing the condition than children whose parents are not bipolar. However, a bipolar parent is not a guarantee of a diagnosis later in life. The study of 388 children from bipolar families and 251 children without a family history found that only 10 percent of the children from bipolar families showed symptoms of the disorder, compared to just under 1 percent of those children from the control group.
Of greater concern to the researchers, and to bipolar parents, was the revelation that the children from bipolar families were 2 to 3 times more likely to suffer from anxiety or a mood disorder such as depression. These results are supported by another study from Concordia University, which found that children of bipolar parents have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol than other children. In both cases, researchers attributed the increased emotional issues to the stress of living with a parent with mental illness.
Still, experts stress that the potential for future mental health issues in children is in no way a recommendation that people with bipolar disorder should not have children. However, they do recommend that bipolar parents spend a great deal of time planning and preparing to have children, and take steps to ensure that everyone is healthy and able to function.
Ideas for Parents
Bipolar parents can be excellent caregivers with thriving parents, if they:
Focus on stability. If your illness is uncontrolled, having a baby is not the best idea. Ideally, you should wait until you have a secure handle on your condition before starting a family, so you will be better prepared to handle your emotional state and identify triggers and signs that your mood is out of control.
Stay compliant with treatment.Bipolar disorder is best managed with medication and mental health support. Make your health a priority by eating right, exercising and getting enough rest. Aim to make your bipolar disorder something that you manage day to day as part of your routine.
Build a support system. All parents need help. Sometimes, all you need is a few hours of down time to get your bearings and feel less overwhelmed, and if you are bipolar, that time to step back and decompress can make the difference between remaining in control and slipping into mania or depression. Have a support system of friends, family and health care professionals on call who you reach out to when you need a little extra help.
Learn to recognize the signs of trouble. Even when your disorder appears to be under control, symptoms can surface and begin to affect your life. Be cognizant of your own symptoms — and the triggers that can set them in motion — and be willing to admit when you’re having trouble and get help. In addition, learn to recognize the signs that your children are having difficulties. Studies show that early intervention is best in the children of bipolar parents, as it could help prevent the development of more serious disorders later on.
Be open about your disorder. Unfortunately, there is often a stigma about mental illness, and patients may be reluctant to reveal their issues to others. However, being open with your condition allows others to give you the support you need and helps your loved ones identify signs of trouble that you might not see or deny.
Create an emergency plan. In the unlikely event that something goes wrong — you slip into a depressive episode and have suicidal thoughts or actions or a bad reaction to medication — it’s important to have an emergency plan in place. Educate your family on how to handle potential emergencies and get help when necessary.
A diagnosis of bipolar disorder does not mean you have to live without the joy of parenthood. It just means you will have a few unique challenges — but they are nothing that cannot be overcome without medication, support and a commitment to keeping your condition under control.