A Parent’s Depression or Bipolar Disorder: Helping Children Understand

According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, about 14.8 million Americans suffer from depression. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that bipolar disorder affects fewer, though still a substantial number of, Americans – 5.7 million. Both of these issues can have a significant effect on an individual’s life. While individuals suffer the effects of their own mental illness, the consequences can be even greater when those individuals are parents.  Children of parents with mental illness, particularly those with severe depression or bipolar disorder, are often impacted by the manner in which their parents’ disorder manifests. This post is designed to provide information on depression and bipolar disorder, how to discuss mental illness with children, and how to help children whose parents suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, or both.

Symptoms of Depression and Bipolar Disorder

Mental illness is a difficult topic to address and an even tougher one to diagnose.  Due to the ways in which symptoms of the illness present, there is no one failsafe way to diagnose a particular disorder.  However, there are a number of common symptoms that may signal the presence of an issue and need for an individual to seek help in diagnosing and treating mental illness.

Depression, the most prevalent of mental illnesses, presents in a number of different ways and in differing levels of severity. Those who suffer from depression may exhibit only one or two symptoms, while others may suffer from many. When considering if an individual suffers from depression, some of the most exhibited symptoms to be aware of are:

  • Feelings of anxiety, sadness, or emptiness
  • Feelings of guilt, hopelessness, helplessness or pessimism
  • Unusual levels of fatigue, decreased energy, or difficulty sleeping
  • Loss of interest in once-pleasurable things
  • Thoughts of suicide

Bipolar disorder, statistically less prevalent, is actually of greater concern to the individual as well as his or her loved ones.  Drastic changes in mood and behavior often accompany bipolar disorder, making it difficult to maintain interpersonal relationships – particularly parent/child relationships.  Other symptoms of bipolar disorder include:

  • Extreme irritability
  • Emotional highs and lows, often with extreme variances
  • Talking exceptionally fast, unusually distracted and racing thoughts
  • Sleeping very little
  • Impulsive, high risk or unrealistic behavior
  • In severe episodes, there may be delusions or hallucinations

If you suspect you or a loved one suffer from either of these issues, talking to your children about your depression or bipolar disorder is very important. When dealing with very young children, discussion should include generalities but few details.  For older children, who are capable of understanding and providing support, more upfront details will enable a better relationship and understanding when symptoms make communication difficult.

Explaining Depression and Bipolar Disorder to Children Ages Six to 11

Children in the early elementary age group typically have a desire to help the adults in their lives, and there are certain aspects of depression and bipolar disorder which they may be able to assist.  Younger children will have more difficulty understanding behaviors exhibited during episodes when symptoms are prevalent.  Make certain to engage in a compassionate and calm discussion with your child or children during times when symptoms are less problematic.  Explain to younger children that you are not feeling well but you are doing what you need to do to feel better. Some suggestions about how to talk to younger children include statements such as “Daddy (or Mommy) isn’t feeling very well, but I’m going to the doctor to feel better” or “Mommy is a little sad today but I will feel better soon.”  It is important that children of any age understand that your symptoms are not a direct result of any behaviors they have exhibited.  Your child has likely already noticed changes in your mood or personality.  Having an open and honest discussion will help your child feel less fearful and confused about your behavior. Reinforce your love for your child and let them know that you are working on making things better.

Explaining Depression and Bipolar Disorder to Children Ages 12 to 15

Children of middle school age are better equipped to understand some of the specifics relating to depression and bipolar disorder. For children in this age group, it’s important to be honest, particularly when your symptoms are presenting. If disagreements and yelling between yourself and your children is causing you stress, have a discussion with them to explain how the behavior is impacting your mental state. Remind him or her that bipolar disorder makes dealing with fighting and discord difficult. Ask the child if you can talk about this situation later. Children in this age group will understand at a deeper level than will younger children; however, because they are still children there may be some fearfulness accompanying their understanding. Let them know how important they are in your life and that they are making life better for you.

Explaining Depression and Bipolar Disorder to Children Ages 16 to 20

Children this age are nearly adults and can provide help for you when symptoms present. They are able to learn more about depression and bipolar disorder and be resources in times of need. Their advanced levels of maturity help them understand that the conditions are normal and that you need assistance from time to time, but it will also help them process their emotions and may improve your household dynamic. If the presentation of your depression or bipolar disorder has resulted in emotional discord between yourself and your children, ensure that you take time to apologize when you are able and engage in an open and honest dialogue about how you can repair hurt feelings and emotions.  Tell your children that you are working hard with your mental health provider to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

A Final Thought

Depression and bipolar disorder are conditions you may have, but they do not define you as a person and they most certainly don’t rule your family or household relationships. Multiple treatment options are available and family therapy is excellent option for helping children of all ages understand your condition. Encourage your children to share their feelings and ask questions. In most cases, your children are impacted by your conditions as deeply as you are.

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