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6 Ways Everyone Can (and Should) Parent Like They're Bipolar

Photograph by Twenty20

Even among the open-minded, there's a stigma against bipolar disorder, especially as it pertains to parenting. The notion conjures images of abusive or selfish parents, those who ride their highs to reckless extremes, and the children who suffer the consequences.

I'm not a mental health expert or medical professional, so I can only speak to this stereotype from my own personal experience. Yes, I react physically and emotionally to life's common stressors in extremes. However, I am not the kind of violent bipolar you see on the news.

Now that I'm sober, my manic phases are more likely to involve a sudden overwhelming dedication to an obscure hobby rather than a spontaneous, weeks-long gambling binge (you need some money to start that up anyways, right?).

My mental illness personified would be an optimistic schoolgirl, always smiling, but not sure what about.

Still, although I am generally nonviolent, I have made adjustments to my behavior to ensure my daughter's needs are met during my episodes. Here's how I do it:

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1. Quiet time

Just because my daughter, E, has outgrown naps doesn't mean I have to forfeit what was formerly my midday break. "Quiet time," which started as an alternative to naptime, has become a useful tactic for regaining my sanity in stressful moments. If I'm feeling overwhelmed or like I'm about to snap, I breathe and suggest E does quiet time while I rest. Then, she goes to her room and plays by herself, knowing she should only leave her room if she needs to use the bathroom. During this time, I can nap or do something rejuvenating.

However, I try to use quiet time in moderation. I don't want to make it my default to push everyone else away when I'm stressed out. I do, however, want to encourage her and show how we as humans can grow, be creative and recharge when we spend a little bit of time each day engaged in something meaningful by ourselves.

2. Outdoor time

Whether I'm manic or depressed, the outdoors is a tonic that levels me out. Knowing this, combined with my daughter's love of playgrounds, it seems obvious that we should use the outdoors to our mutual advantage. The catch is that my daughter doesn't enjoy being around other kids, and she'd almost always rather play with me than play alone. When I'm depressed, it's really tough to play with her at all, so I've learned to pepper our outdoor playtime with bouts of rest. Sometimes, I have to tell her, "I want to sit for a little bit" or "Why don't I stay on this bench while you play?" while letting go of the false notion that taking time to regain my composure is akin to neglecting her.

I have started doing what I have just decided to call "wellness checkpoints" several times a day, sometimes several times an hour.

3. Honesty and communication

I learned my lesson about communication one evening in the car. E was talking on and on about something I couldn't focus on, and I said firmly, "I just need to drive right now, I can't talk." She was silent. I glanced over and saw her eyes were welling up, and I knew I'd made a mistake.

I followed up with, "I'm not mad at you, honey. I'm sorry. I should have said that differently. I don't feel good and I'm having a hard time, but I love you very much. You didn't do anything wrong."

She stopped crying, but I still felt terrible. To her, it must have sounded like I just didn't want to talk to her. Now, she understands I have a sickness that makes me cry or get mad more than I should. Using age-appropriate language, and always being sensitive to the fact she might take my symptoms personally, I let her know when I'm on the verge.

I think parents tend to believe it's better to shelter children from the stressors of adult life, but I disagree. I think it sets a better example to communicate clearly about what I'm feeling. I also think it's important that E knows I'm mentally ill. Otherwise, she might think any given thing she does or says could be the cause of my euphoria or sadness—rather than understanding that my psyche operates independently of her.

4. Wellness checkpoints

I have started doing what I have just decided to call "wellness checkpoints" several times a day, sometimes several times an hour. Instead of waiting until I'm an emotional wreck to figure out how I reached that point and how to fix it, I take preventative measures.

I ask myself: am I hungry? Does something hurt? Am I feeling confused? This may seem bizarre to someone who is well, but I don't often realize that I'm over-caffeinated, hungry, tired, too warm or dehydrated. I may not realize I've been standing for hours and just need to sit down. Recently, in the mall, I completely forgot what I was doing. I couldn't remember if what I was looking at (a Forever 21 store) was part of reality or something I'd made up. My heart was racing, and I felt trapped.

When I went outside into the cold and spent a couple of minutes standing outside my car, my confusion dissipated as my body temperature went down. Had I thought to remove my coat in the mall, I may not have had such a terrible reaction. That experience taught me to pay attention to my physical condition— or else risk losing touch with reality and saying or doing something that puts E in harm's way.

5. Ride the wave

When I check in with myself and make sure I'm physically comfortable, but I still have emotional problems, that's when it's best to plan my day with E in a way that allows me to "ride the wave" of my highs and lows while still meeting her needs. For instance, if I'm manic, and E is up to an outing, we might meet up with friends, family and attend an event downtown in the same day. If I'm down, E is usually delighted to help me with mundane household tasks: cooking, cleaning or washing our clothes by hand (which she loves to do).

6. Ask for help

This is the hardest one to do—and the hardest one to talk about. I have always been more meek than aggressive, someone who errs on the side of people-pleasing, one who would rather suffer hours of discomfort than cause someone else discomfort.

With or without bipolar, the work of caring for and guiding a tiny human is baffling in its complexity.

However, I was having a really hard time with E last summer, newly single and desperately under-employed. I was also still drinking at that time. One night, E, who was 3 at the time, was fussier than usual. I had to give her a time-out, which she refused. Instead, she would run out of her bedroom and I'd have to carry her back in. Over and over again. When she refused again, screaming down the hallway, I lost it. I grabbed her arm to urge her back into her room and wound up thrusting her just hard enough for her to swing around a little and fall over.

Her wailing was replaced with silence. She stared up at me like I was a stranger. I crumpled and apologized, over and over. I also realized that some very small part of me wanted to regain control of the situation so badly that I would do just about anything to make her screaming stop. This came with the sinking feeling that, if I could do that, what else might I do in an even more stressful situation? I quit drinking altogether after that, but I also decided that, from then on, I would call someone. Now that I have a partner, I ask him for help when I'm overwhelmed. But I also don't hesitate to ask friends and family. My ex, E's father, is even taking a more primary role in her life, so I can focus on taking better care of myself for awhile.

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With or without bipolar, the work of caring for and guiding a tiny human is baffling in its complexity. I think every mom should deeply reflect on this reality from time to time, the reality that we were never meant to do any of this alone. We need our friends, families, partners and communities (physical and online). We need to support each other.

And try to do our best, no matter who and how we are.

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