Bipolar is a word you hear tossed around casually from time to time. It’s often meant to describe something that quickly goes back and forth between extremes. In real life, this can mean unexpected mood swings with unpredictable behavior. If you have this in your family, it pays to learn the symptoms and understand your risk.
A recent article from Science Daily states that kids who have parents with bipolar disorder have an increased risk of several mental health problem. There risk includes early-onset bipolar, mood disorders (such as depression), and anxiety disorders. The risk for bipolar was highest for kids with both parents having bipolar.
This might sound like a life sentence for something horrible and debilitating. Let’s not mince words here – bipolar disorder is certainly a serious issue. The most intense form of bipolar disorder comes with a real risk of suicide, so proper diagnosis and treatment is absolutely necessary. However, with good care and support, people with bipolar disorder can live good lives.
According to the article, the key is early identification and intervention. This is true for a few reasons. First, many people with bipolar can identify symptoms or “episodes” from before the age of twenty. Some have had problems in their early teen or tween years. Untreated mental illness at any age in any form is daily torture. It shapes your beliefs about yourself and the world, it affects your behaviors, and it affects your ability to form and keep relationships. While this can be difficult at any age, it’s particularly important to give children the chance to develop a healthy lifestyle and outlook on life. Unidentified bipolar disorder can make difficulties early on.
This is not to support looking under every rock and crack for kids who behave a little erratically. Some of that is just the normal range of teenage behavior. But if you are a parent with diagnosed bipolar disorder, it’s wise to keep an eye out for symptoms in your child. Educate them about their risk and what to look for. If you have bipolar disorder or another mental illness yourself, they may have already experienced the side effects of your symptoms.
I’m not saying that you should be an alarmist and make your child overly worried about any change of emotions. If you have diabetes or a family related heart condition, it would be just as wise to share information about that. I am saying that you can arm you child with knowledge about a real risk in their life. Be a safe haven for them to come to. Let them know that even if they are scaring themselves, you will be there to help them through it.
It’s not 100% clear if mental illness is passed on through genetics – like a faulty gene that causes birth disorders or congenital problems. However, any kind of genetic package that shows certain vulnerabilities can make it more likely that a child will fully develop that problem. That’s the nature side of it. The nurture side says that a child raised in a home with mental illness present has more likely been exposed to distress and disruption. Even well-managed disorders can cause problems from time to time.
So if you have bipolar disorder in your family, keep one eye open for odd symptoms suggesting a possible bipolar episode. Erratic behavior, extreme mood switches, anything that makes you think they might wish to harm themselves or another person. If it turns out to be a fairly normal child or teen issue, take the chance to talk and keep the lines open for the future. If it’s really a bipolar episode or symptom catching your attention, you may have caught a problem early in its tracks. And that’s a conversation you’ll be glad you were there for.
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Last reviewed: 4 May 2009