Learning To Accept and Love Your Bipolar Child


Every prospective mother hopes to have a healthy child. Usually, a mother is praying for physical health, but having a mentally ill child is just as devastating to a family. The very nature of a mental illness like bipolar disorder makes it difficult to accept the child who has the disease. After all, the symptoms of a bipolar child make them hard to parent and frustrating people to be around. It is, however, possible to learn to accept the child while still trying to eradicate the disease that plagues her.

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The deceptive and difficult part of accepting mental illness in a child is the fact that mental illness very rarely shows up in children in the first few years of life. The milestones examined in the first few years of life will usually not expose a young child’s mental stability (or lack thereof). For instance, in annual checkups doctors are looking for such accomplishments as sitting up, walking, and talking. These are the gauges used to measure how a child is faring compared to others her age. A child might easily reach every milestone expected of her in the first few years, while a potential mental illness goes unnoticed. Bipolar children, for instance, might walk at an appropriate age, and will often talk as early as their peers. Of course, their parents will notice that they are very hard to get along with and require more comforting and accommodations to keep them happy. But who can say that these are not just the traits of fussy babies who will turn out just fine? It may take several years of noting that this child is “different,” in order to force doctors and caregivers to acknowledge the problem.

The next obstacle in the journey toward acceptance is differentiating behavioral and disciplinary issues from mental illness. After the initial acceptance that there is a problem, there follows the inevitable desire to categorize it as a disciplinary issue. Almost every mother and/or father of a bipolar child has experienced the embarrassment of a stranger’s incredulous stare as you try to calm or quiet a raging child in a public place. Sometimes these strangers even make comments about your ability to “control” your child. Even family and friends might have difficulty understanding how a parent could allow her child to act that way. This, however, is almost the defining characteristic of a bipolar child—the fact that she cannot be “controlled.”

Unfortunately, too many parents suffer tremendous guilt regarding their fitness as parents before a diagnosis is reached that frees them (to some extent) from these feelings of guilt. Your child is not acting this way because you are not a stern enough parent.  Nor is she acting this way because you are too stern. Bipolar disease in a child is not a reflection of parenting skills at all. It is a chemical imbalance, in much the same way that diabetes is a chemical imbalance. And if diabetes is not a reflection of one’s parenting skills, then neither is bipolar disease. The diagnosis of bipolar disorder in a child gives parents ammunition against the misguided, but well-meaning assaults of family, friends, and strangers. This child acts this way because she is sick, and not because her parents do not give her enough discipline, or attention—or fiber.

The next hurdle to overcome is the acceptance of different outcomes for a bipolar child. Parents have to accept that there were expectations for their children that must be modified somewhat. Like the parent of a diabetic child who learns to accept the idea of lifelong blood monitoring, the parent of a bipolar child must learn to accept the concept of lifelong mood monitoring. This might mean the bipolar child is unable to cope with situations that pose no problems for other children. Very often, parents experience a sense of loss, when they realize their children will continue to be different. There is a sense of mourning “what might have been.” Of course, these emotions are heightened by the sheer exhaustion that comes with coping with a child who is happy one minute, and exploding in rage the next.

What is important to remember in this process is that your child is still your child. Yes, your expectations for this child must necessarily be different from they were before. But these should not be thought of as lowered expectations; they should more properly be thought of as modified expectations. Your child can still achieve great things. There have been many great figures throughout history that have dealt with bipolar disorder. They simply had to make accommodations for their needs.

That is the crux of the matter, really—making accommodations. The truth is that you can learn to love and accept your bipolar child much more easily when you learn the modifications necessary to make her life (and yours) easier. The most important part of learning to accept and love your bipolar child is learning to make modifications in yourself. The way that you perceive your child will make the most difference to both your acceptance of her and her acceptance of herself. Yes, she is different, but her difference is what makes her special. And while it is not always possible to love all of your child’s actions, it is always possible to accept and love the child herself.

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