Staying Sane While Raising a Bipolar Child

She stomps out of the room, each firmly-planted step shaking the floor. Tear-stained, she plunges her face into the pillows on her bed, where she screams and cries. As she starts to calm down, I feel the adrenaline retreating into the places from which it flooded my body. Breathing, relaxing myself, I tend to her little sisters, who’d scattered to their usual safe zones with the toys, blankets and coloring supplies we set aside for these moments.

Ten minutes later, visibly calmer, she emerges, walks to me and throws herself into my arms.

“I’m sorry, Mom. I wish I didn’t have my brain!”

As I hold her, I’m thinking Sometimes I wish so too.

This is my life with bipolar – my daughter’s bipolar. No medication adjustments, therapy, relaxation techniques, exercise or any other intervention has ever fully taken the edge off my girl’s biochemistry. It may never do so.

Life with her bipolar is a constant anticipating, a protecting of my daughter from herself, and of her siblings from her without making her into a kind of an “other.”

How do we cope with this constant up and down in the house? Here are some things that help:

Know and teach her the signals of mood changes. I know, by the way her eyes dilate, her posture changes, and the pace of her speech shifts that she’s leaving reason and entering a mood swing. I spend time during her clear-minded moments prepping her for the intense ones. We talk through what her body does as she becomes agitated, what thought patterns emerge, feelings that help her recognize a meltdown is imminent, and strategies that help her stay calm.

Practice and teach her self-soothing skills. In the calm moments, we do much to help her stay stable. Consistent medication use, balanced diet, stable sleep/wake times, and exercise contribute to this. I talk her through the importance of maintenance for her to feel good and stay stable in her life. I model and practice with her a handful of self-soothing skills (wrapping in a blanket, walking around a large circle on the floor, counting her breaths, strong-sitting – crossed legs/arms w/deep breathing).

Protect and care for the siblings. I both prioritize the other kids’ safety and emotional needs, and explain to my daughter why I’m doing that. I teach her the implications of her disorder when it creates instability. I model empathy and concern for her sisters, which counters the naturally self-centered feature of bipolar mood swings. I help the other kids know how to handle their sister when she rages, how to keep themselves safe, and how to reengage with their sister when she’s stable.

Allow healthy space for grief. Raising a child with mental illness is a recipe for daily grief and loss. Loss of the peace and quiet in the home. Of some of the intimacy I might have had with our other kids I’m often more involved with my bipolar daughter, in order to contain her and protect the others. I have to let go and grieve over what I wished for my family. And of my need for her to grow up functional for me to feel I was a good mom.

Forgive. Without forgiveness, the chaos of a family raising a bipolar child turns to a poisonous quicksand of resentment. Resentment for the way she looks at me when she is altered – like I’m her enemy, her betrayer, a monster. For the ways people look at me when my obviously too-old-for-a-tantrum child is throwing bags of groceries in the parking lot. For the ways I look at myself when every well-respected parenting strategy falls crashing to the floor around me and I feel completely inadequate.

It’s a tall order to parent a child who’s moods shift from one moment to the next. But, like you, with your child’s unique needs – I do it one day, one moment at a time, grateful for a community of understanding parents like you in the journey.

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