Now we have covered how to support ourselves in parenthood in the previous article. But how can we support our children directly, while facing our own mental health challenges? Here are some of the tactics that have really worked for me thus far. I am certain there is much I can still learn, without question, and I hope this list grows over time as I do.
How To Support The Kids:
Enduring the rigors of the first days and months of parenthood can challenge even a seasoned veteran. Couple this fact with sleep deprivation, and a mental health issue, and things can quickly become more complicated. Staying connected and finding peers during this time can be really helpful. You may find it of benefit to compare notes with other new mothers and fathers, to determine if you’re having a significantly harder time coping than they are. At the very least, you might figure out a way to get out of the house faster or to calm a crying infant using hand puppets. Sunshine and play dates are often good for the whole family.
I touched on this in my previous article, because a cooperative nursery school experience was astonishingly positive for my entire family. The community we built through that process supported our children’s development, and our parenting, in a brilliant manner. I would highly recommend being involved with their preschool experience as much as is possible for you. Being connected to a community in anyway is a powerful and therapeutic action in itself.
By knowing how your children are integrating into their school classrooms you’ll likely get an idea of how well they are doing overall. If a child is wracked with anxiety, for example, it’s possible that they need additional services. Your involvement demonstrates to your child that you’re invested in what their doing. Likewise, a regular homework routine can offer you both some relaxed bonding time, while giving you cues about their academic progress.
People with mental health issues, and children, can both benefit from knowing what is expected of them during each day. Removing as many surprises as possible allows for a more relaxed and manageable day for everyone. You might consider making your kids visual calendars. When my kids were smaller I had a schedule for each day for them to examine. It’s all about stress reduction, and simplicity, for the sake of the whole family.
Most of us aren’t trained experts in medicine, teaching, or child development. Given that, it’s probably best to confer with the professionals about your child’s progress. You want to make certain that they are getting all the support they need in a variety of areas. Knowing they are on track developmentally allows you to use your energy where it is needed, by engaging with your kids, and taking care of yourself.
Activity times can strengthen your bond, there’s no question of it. They show your child a level of engagement that builds confidence. Likewise, activities that are independent of you can offer some respite time for mothers and fathers to recuperate. There’s a great big world out there, and so much to discover, both together, and independently. Just don’t over commit your schedule, or take on anything too grandiose (I should take my own advice here).
I’ve spoken with a great number of people about how much to share with your kids about bipolar, or on the contrary, what to shield them from. I find this to be a very age-specific conversation and plan on making this topic non-taboo in our household when the time does come. That time is not now, for us. I have personally chosen to only share the fact that I take medication with them, as they are still far too young to have a more in depth conversation (they simply saw me doing this, which prompted a conversation). I see having an in depth conversation with them as serving no purpose at this juncture except perhaps to alarm them. At times when I haven’t been feeling my best, I simply removed myself from their line of sight, or called in the backup squad to help me. I feel it’s my duty to shield them from any notion that I am in danger, or unreliable. Of course, everyone handles this differently, which I respect. I guess I would ask myself, what is the motivation for explaining bipolar to a young child in any detail? I would confer with your psychiatrist about how to approach this topic if you feel the need to do so. Obviously older kids need to be educated about what signs and symptoms to look out for, when it comes to their own health, as bipolar is correlated with a genetic factor.
This is a no-brainer. Just as we keep children away from hot stoves, you should also have a locked cabinet for your medications, if you take any. Actually, the only fact my kids know about my bipolar, is that I take medication. They have no earthly idea why. My older child did ask me about it one day, and I simply told him, “My body needs some medicine to be healthy. I have to take this everyday, but then I feel great. If you were to swallow my pills though you would be very, very sick – so please, don’t ever touch it, ok?” This was enough of an explanation to satisfy the curiosity, but it also helps me teach them to think for themselves and avoid life-threatening situations. Still, as I said, I don’t tempt fate, and keep everything out of reach in a locked cabinet.
It’s so powerful to teach a kid to identify how they feel. Ask them questions. Teach them names for frustration, anger, happiness, disappointment, and beyond. This will serve them well throughout their lives, and help them develop self-awareness. Self-awareness of your mental state is the most powerful behavioral cognitive skill you can have, when fighting something like bipolar. I’ve tried to teach my two children some ways to calm themselves also, and to express how they feel in a constructive way (e.g. without throwing things or screaming). This is a challenging skill for many people to master, so be patient. It’s a life-long process.
I think most people try to keep their kids healthy, in a general sense. We are laying the foundation here with information about the basics of good food, exercise, proper sleep habits, and hygiene. But in the future, when they are older, I hope to build on this by making the leap towards taking care of their mental health. It’s all about stepping-stones.
If you want your children to communicate with kind words, and reasonable reactions to stress, you need to demonstrate how to do that yourself. They are always watching! We need to be very careful how we present ourselves, as people who gravitate towards extreme emotional states. This is a massive challenge, no doubt, but it’s always in the back of my mind. Think before you speak.
I have never met a perfect parent, let alone a perfect person. If I over-react or realize I had a poor approach to a situation, I am the first to offer an apology to my kids. It’s about respect. I don’t have to beg for forgiveness on bended knee, but I do feel like it’s ok to say, “I was thinking about… and I wish I had done…instead. I’m sorry about that, but I think I understand things better now.”
This is the easiest, and potentially the most powerful item you have in your parenting tool belt. Tell them everyday, how much you care. Love needs to be expressed, and children are especially prone to being aware of how safe they feel. Telling a child you love them only reinforces the notion of security, and belonging, in this big confusing world. No matter what happens, I end each and everyday with an “I love you.”
Up next, and in conclusion: What I blame bipolar for, with regards to parenting.
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Last reviewed: 9 Jan 2014