Parents of Bipolar Children: Learning your Child Has a Mental Illness


THE FIVE STAGES OF GRIEF FOR Parents of Bipolar Children

A parent of a bipolar child most certainly experiences trauma and grief in dealing with this mental illness. Elizabeth Kubler Ross introduced her model of grief to us as a way to understand bereavement. It has been found to be applicable across cultures, not just as a way to understand our reactions to death, but any traumatic experience.

I find this model useful for myself in helping my families come to grips with their child’s diagnosis. Keep in mind that this is not a series of steps that one sequentially progresses through. It is a rough model of our experience when faced with something traumatic. Everyone’s experience is different, and there is a lot of movement back and forth between the stage.

Stage 1 of Grief for Parents of Bipolar Children:  Denial

Denial is a mechanism by which we protect ourselves by refusing to accept reality. It can be a conscious choice such as “ I can’t deal with it so I won’t” or an unconscious choice that we are unaware of. I see denial in the extended families, in the child himself, and in the parents of bipolar kids.

In extended families denial takes the form of statements of blame directed at the parents. They accuse the parent of a bipolar child of not being strict enough, or consistent enough , or if suggest if they somehow changed their parenting their child would not be ill. Parents frequently feel responsible for their child’s illness. They are not. However, this dynamic exacerbates and complicates this process adding a level of guilt that is destructive and an impediment to real progress for their child.

Parents are often unaware of their own denial. It may take the form of viewing the bipolar child’s behavior as a behavioral choice instead of a condition of their illness. Teaching parents how to understand when a child can and can’t control their behavior is a tool to help break through denial. In teen or child clients denial can crop up during the most inconvenient times, and often takes the form of abandonment of their medication regimen.


Stage 2 of Grief for Parents of Bipolar Children: Anger

Children and families are often angry that they have been struck with this illness. Of course they should be. In no way is it fair. Why couldn’t they have a healthy child? Why is their child stuck with this terrible illness? Why are they stuck with this terrible child?

When parents first come to see me they will often prepare me for the anger that their child will likely display and perhaps direct at me. Interestingly, the families are actually more frequently the ones who direct their anger at me. This is a part of the process, and that it is necessary to work through the diagnosis. Anger must be felt and processed in order to move forward. Resisting it hinders the ability to accept your child illness. It can’t hurt and is a necessary part of grieving the loss of a mentally healthy child. Parents can get stuck in it however and may need help moving though the anger. Anger can also be very harmful to a bipolar child if directed at them. Bipolar Children cannot deal with other’s intense emotions or their own. Parents need to monitor the anger they are putting out as it is crucial to their child’s stability.

Stage 3 of Grief  for Parents of Bipolar Children: Bargaining

Bargaining usually takes the form of bargaining or bargaining with with God. I will often hear families say” If I could take this away from my child by giving it to myself I would”. Bargaining involves a form of magical thinking really, and captures the deep emotional pain that accompanies the process of accepting that a child has a serious mental illness. Parents of bipolar children feel the need to bargain because they feel they do not have power. Parents didn’t ask for this illness and they can’t make it go away.

Stage 4 of Grief for Parents of Bipolar Children: Depression

Depression is a stage where parents feel overwhelmed and may temporarily give up. Depression is really sadness, fear, and the full range of emotions that accompanies and embodies the significance of the diagnosis. We can all shut down in response to facing overwhelming emotions. Again, these feelings must be experienced in order to come to some point of acceptance, so parents can take action and problem solve how to best help their child with bipolar disorder. This is a stage parents will frequently return to, when there is uncertainly and change.

Stage 5 of Grief for Parents of Bipolar Children: Acceptance

Acceptance begins with a true understanding that a child has a mental illness that is not going away. This stage also evolves though into deeper understanding that a child with bipolar disorder may be limited in his or her abilities. This child may not live up to all the expectations a parent might have for a mentally healthy child. Parents need to be okay with this. This is challenging and difficult. Refusing to accept a child as they are can cause more damage than the illness itself.

Parents of bipolar children have incredible power to help heal their child, but also to harm them. If they get caught up in their own issues and cannot move past them they can do damage. Stephen Covey tells a story in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People about his son and his social awkwardness. It’s only when he is able to let go of their own need for his son to be different that his son is able to flourish. As a parent, your unconditional love for your child is of paramount importance. If you feel your child is unacceptable and unlovable, it will certainly be challenging to fight for them in the way you need to.

Hope is an important part of this stage as well. Although parents of a child with bipolar disorder must accept that there may be limitations they also cannot give up on giving their child the best future they can have. Children can grow up and be successful, and parents have a lot to do with it.

Hope is required, as is determination to get the best treatment and provide bipolar children with the best opportunities available for optimal health and happiness. It’s a delicate balance between accepting a child without judgment but not giving up hope for the best possible outcome.

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    Medical information obtained from this 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.