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To the Parents of a Child Who Has Bipolar Disorder

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Dear Mom and Dad,

Your child has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I understand your concern. But as a person living with the illness, the clearest and best advice I can give you is to recognize. This word comes with three definitions. Each one, in my experience, will help tremendously.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

First, you must recognize this illness is real. This is not something your child has made up. Unfortunately, there’s a good chance friends, family and society will downplay this fact. You might hear your child is just being a typical kid. Or that she’s “just being difficult.” Or he simply “lacks motivation” But listen to me — they’re doing those things for a reason. If it doesn’t seem normal, listen to your gut. Investigate. Care enough to find out what’s wrong. Accept your child with bipolar.

Next, recognize the symptoms and behavior are not your child’s fault. They cannot help what’s happening to them. This isn’t a personality flaw. I know it will be difficult as parents to manage and comprehend your child’s behavior. Now that I’m older, and have had bipolar for 20 years, I can recognize (there’s that word again) my behaviors, so I feel your frustration. If your son or daughter could will it away or make it disappear, most likely they would. Mental illness is very confusing, especially to those who do not have it. It’s impossible to know what it’s like.

As a child, I clearly remember experiencing my mom’s turbulent, fluctuating behavior and trying to make sense of it. She also had bipolar disorder. My sisters and I would wonder how she seemed OK one moment and out of control the next. Now, fast-forward many years and I can tell you why — it’s the unfortunate nature of the illness. You may be discouraged and saddened every time these behaviors occur in your child. How could they not be in control? Trust me, during these moments, they’re not in the driver’s seat.

Your child did not choose bipolar; bipolar chose your child.

And, most importantly, even though this may not make sense, recognize they might say they’re OK even when they’re not. This happens sometimes when we don’t want to worry you. Dig deeper if you have a feeling something’s wrong. Then, react. Be proactive. My father did everything for me, but even then something was missing. It was action. Sometimes, I just needed someone to put in a car and take me to the doctor. I needed him by my side. It may seem silly to continually ask the same question, “Are you OK?” but nothing matters more than the health of your child. You can change it up by asking in a different way, like, “I know it must be tough going through this, but know you can tell me anything. I will help you.”

You can also enlist the help of someone with lived experience (like myself). We’re out there, and we’d love to help. We’ve been in those shoes. A person with bipolar who has rode the wave can show your child they can survive and thrive despite their diagnosis.

So, dear Mom and Dad, I ask you to stick close, hold their hand and love your child harder than you have ever loved. The outcome is well worth the effort.

Originally published: January 4, 2016
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