How Do Parents with Bipolar Disorder Effect Their Children?
Long term lasting effects on the offspring of individuals with Bipolar
My father is bipolar (BP), he goes through periods where he calls me so excited he can barely contain himself. He tells me he has the best new idea to make him millions. He anxiously describes the stories he is writing. When I see him in person he is clean, shaven, and a healthy weight. I cannot smell the remnants of alcohol on his breath. He smiles, he laughs from the pit of his stomach, and he is kind to me. Other times, I cannot get a hold of my father for weeks, when I stop by his house to make sure he is alive - the house is trashed, he has not eaten, or showered in days. He is unable to return any calls and empty alcohol bottles riddle the floor. So it goes, a constant cycle. Growing up I assumed he just did not care, when he did not show to pick me up on his scheduled days; I assumed he had more important things to do. The cruel reality is my father’s genetic makeup controls his life. When he is manic, he is ecstatic, he is responsible and present. Comparatively, when he is depressed, I watch him slip slowly away into the abyss.
This story is not unique, children all over the world are suffering the effects of their parent’s mental illness. Parents are thought to be the leaders of the home. They are expected to establish a foundation of morals into their children. They are supposed to teach them how to cope with stress and turmoil. Through experimentation scholars have been able to observe the effects on offspring of bipolar individuals. Through an analysis of bipolar disorder itself, observable characteristics in children of bipolar parents, and the effect over time in adults, it will become apparent the true dynamic of a bipolar parent, and the chaotic household they often lead.
Individuals with bipolar disorder undergo phases of powerful emotion, variations in sleep patterns and activity levels, and unusual behaviors. These distinctive periods are called “mood episodes.” Bipolar disorder typically develops during late adolescence or young adulthood. (National Institute of Mental Health). It can be an important factor that induces suicide, job loss, and family discord. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder is “a chronic or episodic mental disorder.” They go on to say it can cause extreme mood swings, fluctuating from manic to miserable. This goes beyond common ups and downs that one may experience, there is an obvious increase in activity level during manic episodes and a drastic decline during a depressive one (National Institute of Mental Health).
Bipolar manifests itself in three different ways, bipolar disorder I, that entails manic episodes that last at least seven days. Individuals who suffer from bipolar I can sometimes be hospitalized because of their condition. Bipolar disorder two, which is defined by a pattern of depressive episodes and hypo manic episodes yet, not to the extent that bipolar one exhibits. Lastly, Cyclothymic disorder is manic and depressive episodes that do not reach the severity of the previous two types (National Institute of Mental Health).
Many people with bipolar disorder can have other illnesses that can occur simultaneously. For example, psychosis, sometimes when people who have severe episodes of mania or depression can also suffer from delusions or hallucinations. For instance, extreme manic individuals could falsely believe they are wealthy and famous (National Institute of Mental Health). They may also believe they have super powers. In contrast, during depressive episodes, they could believe they have committed a crime or that they are financially ruined (National Institute of Mental Health). Tara Westover a New York Times best seller, wrote a memoir titled Educated, where she defines her experiences growing up with a bipolar father. Her father often proclaimed he was spoken to by angels and believed he possessed a power beyond any man. He alleged he was gifted all his injuries and illnesses for the sole purpose of discrediting modern medicine (Westover). Her father would similarly experience severe depressive episodes where he barely spoke, and rarely stirred from bed.
These experiences caused Tara to live an unusual childhood. Riding the roller coaster of emotions her father endured. He would twist reality and she found herself in a constant battle between his ideals and her own truth. Bipolar disorder can drive a wedge in between children and their parents. They can live in two different realms and abide by different rules. Westover and her father ended up losing a relationship in entirety. On the subject she writes,
“Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now. What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me.”
This really details the inner conflict she faced, torn between the two realities in her life. Four of her siblings chose their parents and the remaining three chose education. This family was torn apart. This begs the question, what true effect does having a home with a bipolar leader cause in children? What disorders are they predisposed to?
Children are exposed to a multitude of risks when living with a BP parent. For example, loss of interest, sadness, and excessive spending. These habits are learned from their parent and can impact the relationship crafted between the two. To elaborate, if the parent is depressed and becomes uninvolved in their child’s activities, not attending school events or taking an energetic part in the child’s life it can be detrimental to that relationship. It is important to note that each case of BP varies in severity and the previously mentioned traits may not be present in each parent or family dynamic (livestrong).
Scholarly scientific research is limited because studies that center on bipolar offspring require continuous updates from participants. They often do not remain with the experiment and interestingly out of the mood disorders listed in the following study, children of bipolar parents were more likely to drop out. Psychological Medicine conducted an experiment where they observed children of parents with bipolar, major depressive, and schizophrenic disorders. Offspring of parents with these disorders were more likely to show psychopathic traits (psychological medicine). In addition they were more likely to have cognitive impairments. However, children of parents with bipolar were more likely to exhibit anxious behavior.
Offspring of parents with bipolar were also more likely to display oppositional behavior (psychological medicine). Perhaps the anxiety and combative behavior stems from a chaotic environment and an unpredictable parent. They may question figures of authority because of the distorted ideas being told to them. They may be anxious to be questioned by someone who may have been condemned by their parent previously. Children often learn from observation, if they are shown that a certain behavior is “normal” they will repeat it, and expect that from others in their life. These habit the offspring pick up follow them into adulthood, it seeps into all areas of their life and the relationships they develop.
Studies who follow individuals into adulthood are restricted. However, there are some statistics on offspring of BP parents as the move into adulthood. They are at a significantly higher risk of PTSD, 16% versus the 3% of the control patients (Wagner). Adult offspring of BP parents tend to gravitate toward partners that exhibit BP traits, they might be absent, emotional, etc. because that is what the offspring are accustomed to.
Further information is crucial to decreasing the stigma and preventing these negative effects from occurring. Knowing the symptoms and pattern of a BP individual can help them get treated and prevent their children from being impacted negatively. In general an assumption can be made that the major of effects occur from nurture rather than nature. There is little evidence to suggest that the offspring are born with the anxiety disorders and PTSD but rather learn and develop these issues over time. Education, compassion, and empathy toward all mental disorders is essential to ensure the safety of the community. Parents are the leaders of the home, but all great leaders accept help.
“Bipolar Disorder.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/bipolar-disorder/index.shtml.
Boehlke, Julie. “How Does a Severe Bipolar Parent Affect Children?” LIVESTRONG.COM, Leaf Group, www.livestrong.com/article/30106-severe-bipolar-parent-affect-children/.
Mendez, Iria, et al. “6.27 Psychotic-Like Experiences in Offspring of Parents With Bipolar Disorder and Community Controls: A Longitudinal Study.” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, vol. 57, no. 10, 2018, doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2018.09.389.
Sandstrom A et al (2019). Observed psychopathology in offspring of parents with major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Psychological Medicine 1–7. https://doi.org/ 10.1017/S0033291719001089
Wagner, Dineen. “Offspring of Parents With Bipolar Disorder.” Psych Central Professional, 16 Aug. 2011, pro.psychcentral.com/offspring-of-parents-with-bipolar-disorder/.
Westover, Tara. Educated. Thorpe, Charnwood, 2018.