Bipolar disorder in adolescents has not been as well researched, nor received as much attention as has bipolar disorder in children. This may be because people tend to either group teens with children or with adults. Unfortunately, this is not helpful as each developmental stage presents different manifestations of the illness. This page will first discuss issues that teens specifically face when dealing with bipolar disorder and then will some tips that may be helpful to parents of teenagers who struggle with bipolar disorder (and other mood disorders generally). It also links to pages on children and adults with bipolar disorder.
The Bipolar Teen
Bipolar Adolescents Need Extra Help from Mom and Dad
Treatment for the bipolar teenagers must balance the need for the child to have individuality and confidentiality with the need to involve the family. Well intentioned families of teens typically think teens require their own space and time with a therapist. Bipolar teens, however, oftentimes need the support, involvement and understanding of the entire family. Treating a bipolar adolescent without family involvement is usually unsuccessful. In therapy, bipolar teenagers frequently tell me their parents don’t understand how much help they need. Many of them feel their parents and others expect them to be an adult and that they are not ready to handle any of these responsibilities. They feel they need more help from their parents then the normal teen, and they often want them to participate in therapy.
Bipolar Adolescents Need Help Managing Stress
Bipolar teenagers, even when stable, have a very hard time managing stress. They are vulnerable to stressful situations, but also struggle with self awareness about the impacts of stress upon their well being. They need assistance recognizing the physical signs of stress in their bodies, coping with that stress, and reaching out to others to communicate that stress. Therapy can focus on assisting them in acquiring these skills.
Bipolar Adolescents Need Assistance with Goal Setting
Bipolar teenagers often “bite off more than they can chew". They seem to have no concept of what they can handle and what they can't. In response to realizing they are overwhelmed by a task, they often shut down completely. Part of this may be because when they are experiencing mania they think they can handle more than they actually can. Therapy teaches kids to take small steps towards their goals, thus allowing them to experience success.
Bipolar Adolescents Want Social Acceptance, but don’t know how to Choose Good Friends
The bipolar adolescent struggles with acceptance of peers and with understanding the opposite sex. Their judgment is often impaired. They may choose friends who are not healthy for them or put themselves in situations with peers where they are treated badly. Adolescent bipolar disorder treatment must focus on these issues. These teems need help realizing their value as a person (self esteem), setting boundaries for themselves, and setting standards for how they will allow themselves to be treated.
Bipolar Teens Lack Understanding about their Illness
Despite repeated education about signs of mania and depression, bipolar teenagers often seem unaware of when they are experiencing symptoms of mood states which may influence them. They need psycho education to assist them in understanding the signs and symptoms of each mood state, and how that may make them particularly vulnerable.
Bipolar teenagers Don’t Understand the Importance of Health, Sleep and Nutrition
Bipolar teenagers must learn the connection between sleeping, eating healthily, and their mood stability. In therapy I will often suggest they log their sleep so they can see directly how the lack of sleep impacts their ability to handle stress. A sleep log is also helps them to see when they are experiencing mania (little need for sleep high energy) or depression.
Families of Bipolar Teenagers
Families of bipolar teenagers often expect too much from them. Adolescent bipolar disorder disrupts emotional regulation, coping skills, and problem solving skills. Don’t compare your bipolar adolescent to other adolescents. Many of the bipolar teenagers I work with are incredibly artistic and talented and feel emotions at a depth that most of us will never understand.
These teens may seem sophisticated because of these special traits. However, they still need a tremendous amount of help with their day to day existence. They require patience and support from their family amd they need constant attention, care and monitoring.
Adolescence carries with it many challenges that make it an especially difficult developmental period. The bipolar adolescent has a compromised ability to face all of these stresses and challenges.
Adolescence is a time when kids:
Often, the bipolar adolescent is not ready for these challenges. Bipolar disorder in teens may cause them to be dependent on their family for basic daily functioning, and although they want to separate, that dependence can make it difficult.
What can you do as a parent to better help your Bipolar Adolescent?
Get your own Therapy and Support
As the parent of a bipolar adolescent you need to have an incredible amount of patience. A bipolar teen needs parents who are skilled at:
Parents need to learn these skills and therapy can help with that. Parents may need to process their feelings of grief and anger over the illness their child has. Frequently, parents have a diagnosis of depression or anxiety as well, often from the stress of raising a bipolar teen.
Don't Parent your Child like a " Normal" Child
Insisting on parenting a bipolar adolescent the way you would any other teenager is ineffective and can be harmful for your child. Normal parenting techniques just don't work with kids who are bipolar.
Give up on the Need to be in Control
Bipolar disorder in teens causes an every day struggle for control. Bipolar teens struggle with regulating sleep , appetite and moods. Work to give them a sense of control by teaching, accepting and creating safety and stability. Insisting a bipolar teenager does what you want when you want it doesn’t work and will drive you crazy.
Don't Expect Your Child to be More Mature Than They Are
It is important to understand that there are normal developmental stages that children pass through as they grow up. Each stage is marked by the acquisition of new skills (hopefully) and a greater maturity level. If your child is bipolar it may be that their illness has disrupted this process of normal development. If your child is 15, but has been unstable in their illness for three years, they will not have the skills of a normal 15 year old. It may take them three years to catch up. Be reasonable about your expectations.
Ration out your Energy
Bipolar disorder in teens is a serious illness. It is true that your child can be fine and go on to live a productive and stable life- if they get the right help and stay on the right path. Don't waste your time worrying and arguing with your child about unimportant things.
All parents want their children to be productive adults who can have a job, friends, a family and happiness - and the parents of bipolar teens are no different. And, all teenagers want to express themselves in ways that may be somewhat at odds with what their parents would desire. When it comes to the personal expression of a bipolar teenager, however, it generally best to give some leeway. If your bipolar teenager gets a nose ring or a tattoo, it's not the end of the world. If they attempt suicide, on the otherhand, it's much more serious. Parents need to be able to identify and weigh the relative seriousness of any situation.
Create Opportunities for you Child to Express Him or Herself
A bipolar teen often has an incredible amount of feelings and thoughts that they are struggling to make sense of. Create opportunities for them to express themselves, especially if they are writers or artists. Build on any strengths or interests they have, the more successes they have the more likely they are to be functional adults.
Don't Hold Grudges
If you and your bipolar teen get into an argument, do not give them the silent treatment afterwards. They need help learning how to problem-solve and resolve conflict. When things are calm, discuss what happened and how you can move on from a serious incident
Take any Signs of Depression or Suicidal Comments Seriously
Bipolar disorder in teens puts them at risk for suicide. This constantly needs to be monitored. Parents must communicate with their child's therapist and psychiatrist about any signs of depression or concerns they have about their child.
Be Serious about Substance Abuse
Teen bipolar disorder is a serious risk factor for drug use. Many adults with bipolar disorder have substance abuse problems.
Teach your Child about their Feelings
During healthy and normal development, kids learn emotional regulation. They learn how to identify and tolerate painful emotions and they learn how to cope with them. Bipolar teens are often overwhelmed by the intensity of their emotions and are at a complete disadvantage when it comes to trying to handle them. Parents must create a dialog with their child about what is happening with his or her emotions. Depending on the severity, duration and age of onset, a 15 year old may need to be treated like a three-year-old when it comes to understanding and managing their emotions. A parent needs to teach them about what they are feeling because the reality of the situation is that they themselves don't know. Parents often must read cues about how their child is feeling until they can do it themselves. Bipolar teens may not have the infrastructure necessary to regulate their emotions and so parents must create it for them with a lot of patience and repetition.
Read more about bipolar disorder across all the different ages by clicking the links below.
Visit a page for helpful parenting techniques for anger in bipolar children
Learn about depression in children
Check out our online facebook support community for parents of kids with mood disorder.
Medical information obtained from our website is not intended as a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you have a problem, you should consult a healthcare provider.
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