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Yes, Having a Parent With Bipolar Disorder Can Affect Your Mental Health

6 min.

Having a parent with bipolar disorder can impact children in different ways, but setting boundaries and seeking support are key to maintaining a healthy relationship and home.

By: Sarah Fielding

Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC

March 6, 2024


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People are tremendously affected by those around them. Arguably, this is most obvious with parents and their children. Parents influence their children’s lives in countless ways, and their mental health can be a big part of this—including if they are living with bipolar disorder. According to Charlie Health Primary Therapist Meghan Jensen, LPC, having a parent with bipolar disorder can affect you “developmentally and emotionally.” 

Before delving into what it looks like when a parent has bipolar disorder, it’s important to discuss the role that shame can play in this dynamic. A parent with any kind of mental health disorder may feel shame or guilt about how it affects their child, but having a mental health condition doesn’t mean that you can’t be a wonderful parent. Below, we delve into the effects of growing up with a bipolar parent and how children and parents can work to make this dynamic as healthy as possible. 

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Effects of growing up with a parent living with bipolar disorder 

Every aspect of a parent can have an effect on their kid — mental health conditions and bipolar disorder included. According to Jensen and Charlie Health Group Facilitator Clary Figueroa, MSW, the impact of having a parent who lives with bipolar disorder can include: 

  • Witnessing mood shifts
  • Bearing the result of impulsive decisions
  • Anger or frustration
  • Caring for their parent or siblings
  • Fear and anxiety due to unpredictability
  • Uncertainty of how to manage emotions
  • Inconsistent parenting
  • Insecurity

It’s worth noting that these experiences aren’t inevitable. Just because a parent has bipolar disorder, it doesn’t mean they’ll struggle with these behaviors. Also, in addition to the environmental effects of having a parent with bipolar disorder, it’s important to consider the impact of genetics. Some research shows that having a parent or sibling who experiences bipolar disorder increases a person’s likelihood of developing the condition themselves.

Signs of bipolar disorder

While mania and depression characterize bipolar disorder (often leading to the above environmental outcomes), the mood disorder can be divided into three subtypes: Bipolar I, bipolar II, and cyclothymic disorder. The symptoms of each subtype vary slightly and can have different effects on a child. Here’s a quick overview of the different bipolar disorder subtypes and the commonly-occurring symptoms of each. 

Bipolar I

Bipolar II

Cyclothymic disorder 

A mental health condition characterized by extreme mood swings, including manic episodes lasting at least a week that are often accompanied by depressive episodes.

A mental health condition marked by alternating episodes of depression and hypomania, which is a less severe form of mania.

A mood disorder involving frequent hypomanic and depressive symptoms lasting at least two years that’s not as severe as other subtypes of bipolar disorder.

Bipolar I

Bipolar I disorder is marked by manic episodes or manic symptoms that occur for at least a week at a time. Manic episode symptoms include feeling elated or jumpy, having fast-paced thoughts, and needing less sleep than normal. A person with bipolar I disorder might also experience depressive episodes, marked by feeling sad, anxious, and sluggish. A depressive episode can occur in conjunction with a manic episode or on its own, usually lasting at least two weeks. Experiencing four or more episodes within a year is known as rapid cycling.

Bipolar II 

Whereas bipolar I includes depression and mania, bipolar II involves depression and hypomania. A hypomanic episode is less severe than a manic episode, lasting about four days (rather than a full week), the American Psychiatric Association reports. A person living with bipolar II disorder often also has another mental health condition.  

Cyclothymic disorder

Then there’s cyclothymic disorder — the third and less severe form of the psychiatric disorder. A person living with cyclothymic disorder will experience hypomanic and depressive symptoms, but they are milder and shorter than those that define bipolar I or II. However, they tend to happen more frequently (rapid cycling).

Coping with bipolar disorder as a family

Whether your parent is having a depressive episode, manic episode, or another manifestation of bipolar disorder, coping with the mood disorder can be challenging (for all involved). Below are some therapist-approved tips for coping with a bipolar parent or improving communication with your child if you have bipolar disorder. 

How to cope with having a bipolar parent

Setting boundaries, getting support, and practicing acceptance are some ways to cope with having a bipolar parent. 

Set boundaries

Boundaries are necessary for every relationship, including between parent and child. “Children can set clear boundaries through being concise and using ‘I-statements,’” says Jensen. Other boundaries she endorses include not engaging in arguments with parents, refusing to take on caregiving roles (when possible), and not minimizing the effect a parent’s behavior can have. 

Seek support

Sometimes, a parent with bipolar disorder might not take responsibility for themselves or do anything to limit how their mental health affects their child. In these cases, the child might want to look into external support services like community groups for individuals in similar situations, says Jensen. A support group can be extremely valuable in showing them how to set boundaries and recognize signs of harm. Figueroa also recommends trying family or individual therapy to navigate feelings and dynamics. 

Know your limits 

A young person might also feel a desire or responsibility to help their parent navigate living with bipolar disorder. While this could benefit both parties, it can again be helpful for the child to seek support and guidance and know their limits. Figueroa stresses that children should “remember this is a mental illness, and they are not at fault for anything their parent does or says.” For instance, if a parent doesn’t seek treatment or stay in treatment, it’s a reflection of them, not their child, she explains.

How to communicate with a child while living with bipolar disorder

The most important thing a parent living with bipolar disorder can do is honestly and transparently communicate with their child. “Being open and having check-ins with the whole family, using age-appropriate language, can be very helpful,” says Figueroa. She adds that these conversations allow parents to be open about their symptoms and help children understand what is happening. An open-door policy (where the conversation can keep going) allows children to feel comfortable being heard and asking questions. 

Jensen recommends also using these conversations to “reassure family members that they are not responsible for [the parent’s] mental health disorder.” Instead, the parent can discuss healthy forms of support, especially when they are experiencing an episode. Laying these out clearly can give children a sense of understanding and purpose, rather than feeling helpless when they observe a symptom of bipolar disorder. 

Open communication can also normalize bipolar disorder as a common and manageable condition, Jensen adds. Parents can also model the benefits of seeing mental health professionals and actively treating a psychiatric disorder. 

A young person who has been in therapy and processed the effects of growing up with a bipolar parent sits on a couch smiling next to a friend.

What to do if a child is harmed or at risk

A parent living with bipolar disorder is in no way inherently a risk to their child. However, if a situation escalates to a place where a child is in danger or being harmed, there are steps they can take. 

The number one step Figueroa and Jensen recommend to children in this situation is finding a trusted adult to speak with about what’s occurring. Therapy and a support group can also be beneficial to young people who have a parent living with bipolar disorder, especially in severe cases. A mental health professional can help children see their worth and that they, too, deserve to be happy and well-treated. 

Additional steps to consider include contacting their parent’s medical team, understanding the process of checking in their parent for necessary care, and developing a safety plan for at home — such as a spot to go in their house or a neighbor to visit when things escalate. 

“Mental illness is not an excuse to abuse others. We all deserve love and care,” says Figueroa. “The Department of Child and Family Services is always available to report harm as well and also a way to maybe connect the family to much-needed resources. Although I know this can be difficult and will have its own set of consequences: what is important is that they are safe.” 

How Charlie Health can help

If your family is struggling with the effects of growing up with a bipolar parent, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for young people and families dealing with complex mental health conditions. Our expert clinicians incorporate evidence-based therapies into individual counseling, family therapy, and group sessions. With this kind of holistic treatment, managing your mental health is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to start healing today. 

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