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Having a Parent With Bipolar Disorder

The impact of bipolar disorder reaches far beyond the person diagnosed. Bipolar disorder can affect the lives of family and friends. While experience with bipolar disorder is unique, the mental health condition can present challenges.

If you have a parent with bipolar, the disorder's unpredictable nature can change the way you navigate all aspects of life. Having a parent with bipolar often means learning how to support your loved one while finding ways for you to cope.

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition. It causes changes in a person's mood, energy, and ability to function. People with bipolar disorder can experience extreme mood swings. These episodes may include swings between very high moods (mania) and very low moods (hypomania). During an episode, changes in a person's mood, judgment, and behavior can disrupt all areas of life.1,2

What causes bipolar disorder?

Doctors believe a combination of genetics and environment leads people to develop bipolar disorder. Biological differences are one factor, as bipolar disorder causes physical changes in the brain. Studies suggest that people with bipolar have brain chemicals that are out of balance.1,2

Genetics are also a factor in bipolar disorder. We know bipolar runs in families, but it is not directly inherited. If a parent has bipolar, their child may be more likely to develop the disorder. About 10 percent of children who have a parent with bipolar will also develop the disorder.1,3

Bipolar disorder has ripple effects

The effects of bipolar go beyond the person diagnosed. Having a parent with bipolar disorder can influence how you grow up, your emotions, and your view on life.3-5

Children of parents who have bipolar disorder may:5-7

  • Grow up in an unpredictable environment with a lack of routines
  • Have to deal with their parents' risky or dangerous behavior
  • Feel overwhelmed with responsibility and worry
  • Feel shame, anxiety, stress, or guilt because of their parents
  • Face financial hardship or stress due to a parent's impulsive or excessive spending
  • Find it difficult to have healthy relationships

Children of parents with bipolar face additional challenges

Children of parents with bipolar may face major challenges growing up. Those challenges can continue to show up in different ways and impact quality of life.4

Research suggests children of parents with a serious mental illness are at higher risk of poor mental, physical, and emotional health. They often have concerns and fears about how they will someday parent their own children.4-6

Having a parent with a serious mental illness has additional risk factors for children, including:4-6

  • Developing anxiety and depression
  • Developing lower self-esteem
  • Having difficulty forming connections with a partner or loved ones
  • Experiencing physical health problems
  • Developing substance abuse disorder

Emotional effects

Families facing the reality of bipolar disorder may experience an array of emotions. Feelings of loneliness, shame, fear, guilt, anger, and loss are common.5

Some family members of people with bipolar say they feel a heightened sense of being alert or on edge. And that stress leads to physical and emotional exhaustion. Some family members describe feeling scared and helpless, and like they have no control.8

Coping with the realities of bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder may cause family dynamics to shift. It is ok to take time and process the new reality when your parent is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Most people can manage bipolar disorder through treatment. Family members can learn to cope with new challenges.1,2

Education

Learning about bipolar disorder and how it affects people can help you better understand what your parent is going through. Learning about the condition may help you recognize that bipolar is no one's fault.8

Communication

Having a safe space to ask questions and discuss issues can help family members process feelings. Open and honest communication can help everyone feel heard and validated.9

Take care of yourself

You can offer better support if you are staying mentally and physically healthy. Exercising, eating nutritiously, sleeping, and doing things you enjoy can help promote your overall health and reduce stress.9

Develop a plan

Having a plan for what to do when a parent is in an episode can help family members feel more in control.7

Find support

Support can come in many forms. Individual or family therapy can help people learn to manage the effects of bipolar. Consider talking to a therapist, counselor, faith leader, or people in similar circumstances.2,9

This or That

Have you found the right medication for you yet?

Health-focused nonprofits, hospitals, treatment centers, and the National Alliance of Mental Illness often have support group options.8,10

Support groups allow your personal needs to be met. They offer coping skills and a sense of community.10

Getting help in a crisis

Some people with bipolar disorder may have suicidal thoughts or behavior. If you or a loved one is experiencing a crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Call 911 if you or your loved one is in danger.1

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