Understanding bipolar disorder

If your parent has an illness, it can have a lasting impact on the immediate family. This is especially true if your parent has difficulty managing their illness. Depending on the illness’ severity, it may affect the level of care that your parent can provide. It may become necessary for someone else to step in.

It’s crucial that you and your parent receive support during this time. Children may have questions about what their parent is going through, and it’s important to keep the line of communication open.

Bipolar disorder is an mental illness that affects how a person thinks and acts. It typically involves episodes of extreme shifts in mood.

Emotional highs are typically periods of pure elation and excitement that last at least seven days. Emotional lows may bring feelings of hopelessness, or a loss of interest in activities you typically enjoy. These shifts can happen at any time and last at least two weeks.

Researchers aren’t sure what causes bipolar disorder. But there are several recognized factors, including:

  • physical differences of the brain
  • chemical imbalances in the brain
  • genetics

Scientists do know that bipolar disorder runs in families. If your parent or a sibling has bipolar disorder, your risk of developing the disorder increases. This doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically develop the disorder if one of your parents has it, though. Most children who have a family history of bipolar disorder won’t develop the illness.

If your parent isn’t managing their illness well, you may experience an unstable or chaotic home life. This can have damaging effects on your ability to cope with issues inside the home, at school, and at work.

Children or other family members may:

  • have difficulty with relationships outside of the family
  • have excessive responsibility starting at a young age
  • have financial stress
  • have health problems related to emotional distress
  • have extreme levels of stress or anxiety

It’s also typical for children of parents with an illness to wonder if they’ll get that illness, or if they’ll be responsible for caring for family members for their entire life.

Because bipolar disorder can cause dramatic changes in a parent’s personality, it’s normal to have questions. Here are answers to some of the questions you may have:

Is this going to happen to me, too?

Although it’s true that bipolar disorder runs in families, a child with a parent who has bipolar disorder is still more likely not to have the disease than they are to have it. Even being the identical twin of someone who has bipolar disorder doesn’t automatically mean you’ll get it.

No one can be sure if they’ll get this disorder, but you can’t catch it in the same way that you can catch a cold or the flu.

If you do feel like you’re stressed or having a hard time managing your feelings, talk to a medical professional or another person you trust.

Did I do something to make this happen?

No. There are lots of things that contribute to someone having bipolar disorder. Something you may or may not have done isn’t one of them.

Although your parent’s symptoms may change, get better, or get worse over time, it’s possible they were dealing with the disorder before you were even born. The typical age of onset is 25 years old.

What’s the difference between a manic and a depressed mood?

If your parent is in a manic episode, they may:

  • have a hard time sleeping, although they may report feeling “well rested” after only 30 minutes of sleep
  • talk very quickly
  • go on shopping sprees with reckless regard as to how they’ll pay for items purchased
  • get easily distracted
  • be overly energetic

If your parent is in an episode of depression, they may:

  • sleep a lot
  • not be very talkative
  • leave the house less often
  • not go to work
  • seem sad or down

They may experience other symptoms during these episodes as well, so it’s important to know the signs.

Will they ever get better?

Bipolar disorder isn’t curable, but it is manageable. If your parent takes their medication and sees a doctor regularly, it’s more likely that their symptoms are under control.

What should I do if I’m worried?

It’s important to remember that everyone is different. Some people who have bipolar disorder may not want to talk about their condition, and others may be very open about what they’re experiencing.

One way you can help your parent is to let someone know if you feel like you need help dealing with your feelings, or if you have questions about what’s happening.

You can also work with your parent or doctor to develop a plan for when your parent has an episode. It’s important that you know what to expect, what to do, and who you may need to call.

Call for help as soon as possible if you’re scared for yourself or your parent. If you have their doctor’s number, you can call them, or you can call 911 or your local emergency services.

Every year, bipolar disorder affects about 5.7 million U.S. adults, which is about 2.6 percent of the population. This means that your parent isn’t alone — and neither are you. There are a number of support options available to help family members better understand how to help their loved one, as well as how to take care of themselves.

Online forums and support groups are available, as well as in-person group sessions with other people going through the same thing. Here are some resources you can use:


HeretoHelp is a group of mental health and addiction nonprofit agencies that work together to help patients and families handle mental health issues.

They offer an online toolkit that has tips for understanding mental illness, communication, and problem-solving skills regarding this issue. They also offer suggestions for family members coping with their own stress.

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)

The DBSA is another available online resource for children of a parent with bipolar disorder. This organization provides information about in-person support groups. They also run scheduled online support groups for those who don’t have the ability to make an in-person meeting or are more comfortable interacting with people online. Peers lead these groups.


Children of a parent with bipolar disorder may also benefit from one-on-one psychotherapy. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or that you may benefit from more consultation, check with your primary care doctor and insurance company for area providers.

Family-focused therapy (FFT) is useful for both the parent and the family members in coping with the illness and its effects. A trained therapist runs FFT sessions.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

If you or your parent are in crisis, at risk for self-harm or hurting someone else, or are considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Calls are free, confidential, and they’re available to help 24/7.

There isn’t a cure for bipolar disorder, and people’s experience having the illness varies. With proper medical treatment, it’s possible to manage the condition effectively. As your parent ages, they may have fewer manic episodes and more depressive episodes. This, too, can be managed by a trained health professional.

Your parent will likely benefit from a life-long combination of psychotherapy and medication. It may be helpful to keep a chart documenting their:

  • moods
  • symptoms
  • treatments
  • sleep patterns
  • other life events

This can help your family notice if symptoms change or return.