Bipolar parenting project

Parenting is something of a rollercoaster experience. For people with bipolar disorder those highs and lows can obviously be far more extreme, putting extra pressures and demands on families. It's an important issue as evidence has shown that children who have a parent with bipolar are 14 times more likely than other young people to also experience bipolar symptoms, as well as ADHD and depression. It affects more families than might be expected. The hard data is scarce, but an Australian study has suggested around 1 in 5 children have a parent with bipolar.*

At the same time as being aware of the problems, it's important not to forget that many parents find their bipolar condition can be a positive thing, for finding the energy to have fun with their children, and creating a happy home environment.

As part of our research at the Spectrum Centre for Mental Health at Lancaster University, we have been developing a new web-based resource to help people deal with the range of situations and experiences they face. This covers the main everyday issues: 

Perfectionism and impulsivity

Some people with bipolar have high standards, or will sometimes act on impulse. It's the kind of 'intense' behaviour that children can find unsettling and a challenge to live with - particularly if it means being expected to keep rooms immaculate, or constantly achieve top marks at school etc. But it's important for parents to think about their traits in a positive way: all the benefits that can come from spontaneity, in making life fun for children, in providing new things to do. Recognising and understanding behaviour, and how it is seen and impacts on other people, is an essential part of all aspects of coping as a bipolar parent. 

Dealing with mood changes

More extreme moods will inevitably heighten the good times but also exacerbate problems during difficult situations or periods of family life when there are more issues to deal with, like bereavement, unemployment or moving house. A basic but important first step is to be able to recognise and anticipate what those mood changes are, what they feel like, what they look like for other people, and what the consequences might be. This way it's possible to have conversations with the family about what's happening, so they can understand better, and as a group think about, for example, changing plans for the weekend, doing something less potentially stressful than shopping for new clothes. The next step is to actually monitor and map mood changes. It's another way of coming to terms with mood fluctuations and increase people’s sense of control of their mood experiences.

Managing problematic relationships 

Parents with bipolar disorder need to spend more time focusing on the supportive relationships in their lives and less time on all the distractions presented by the problematic ones. It's too easy (for any parent) to become fixated with minor behavioural issues in children - not listening, answering back - turning them into major reasons for concern and a cycle of stress, anger and punishment. Overreacting to bad behaviour over time leads to problem relationships - or at least a perception of them. Bipolar parents in particular benefit from making time for those people who are solid support to their daily lives, whether that's at home or work, and ensuring they play a regular part in their routine and their thoughts.

Developing a relapse plan

Sometimes life gets out of control. Unexpected events or problems come along and no particular coping mechanism or support from family is enough. What is possible and useful, however, is to prepare and plan for what to do when a relapse occurs. This can give people more sense of control over their own care, and the important feeling that there's always a way back to normality and they're in charge of it. What will work best is entirely individual and based on personal situations and sources of support. A section of the web resource is dedicated to helping each parent user to develop a plan based on what they would find helpful. 

We're now looking for more parents living with bipolar disorder who can test out the web resources, and take part in a new study that will help us further develop the service, and provide better support for more parents. If you'd be interested - or know of other parents who would be - please get in touch to find out more, by emailing: h.vincent@lancaster.ac.uk, or by speaking with Helen Vincent on 01524 594954. More information on the project can be found at: www.ibpi.co.uk

 

Laura Wainwright, Spectrum Centre for Mental Health, Lancaster University

 

References:

* Falkov, A. (2007). The impact of parental illness on children – implications for practice, paper presented at the DoCS Research to Practice Seminar, Ashfield, NSW: March 8.