What You Should Know About Parenting a Bipolar Teenager
Diagnosing bipolar disorder in teens is particularly difficult because it coincides with the intense emotional and physical changes experienced during adolescence. What may seem to parents to be extreme but normal teenage moodiness and unpredictability is actually something else–and that something else could be bipolar disorder.
What Does Bipolar Disorder Look Like in a Teenager?
The primary symptoms of bipolar disorder involve recurring episodes of severe depression and euphoric mania. Signs of teenage bipolar disorder are not too different from signs of BD in adults. Parents can recognize a bipolar teen having a manic episode if the teen:
- Is extremely impatient, irritable, and short-tempered
- Talks rapidly and frequently about various subjects
- Has trouble sleeping or staying asleep/paces at night when everyone is asleep
- Neglects schoolwork/can’t focus long enough to complete assignments
- Engages in risky behavior that shows poor judgment or awareness of consequences
Teens over 16 years old in the manic phase of a bipolar episode may act immature or silly for their age. Examples of risky behaviors include taking the family car when they don’t have their license yet, having multiple sexual partners, and committing criminal acts that get them involved with law enforcement.
Alternately, teens in the depressive phase of a BD episode will:
- Present hostile or angry attitudes towards a parent’s desire to find out what’s wrong with them
- Complain about physical ailments (stomachaches, tiredness, headaches, chest pain)
- Sleep more than usual, sometimes never getting out bed at all for days at a time
- Say they feel sad, worthless, hopeless, or have suicidal thoughts.
- Eat very little or "binge" eat secretly
- Show no interest in doing things they previously enjoyed doing
- Refuse to talk to friends or family members
- Use or abuse alcohol and drugs
Teens with bipolar disorder often develop substance abuse problems in an attempt to "self-medicate." Alcohol, marijuana, methamphetamine, and heroin can give teens the escape they crave when overwhelmed with emotions and thoughts they cannot cope with or understand. Teens in the depressive stage may engage in self-harming behaviors like cutting themselves or pulling out their eyebrows or eyelashes. Bipolar adolescents who self-medicate are at a higher risk of overdosing or participating in life-threatening activities when drunk or high.
What Should Parents Do After Their Teenager is Diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder?
Parents should rely on psychologists or psychiatrists to obtain an accurate diagnosis for teens suspected of having BD. Bipolar disorder in adolescents is sometimes misdiagnosed as ADHD, oppositional-defiant personality disorder, and major depressive disorder, resulting in teens receiving the wrong treatments. While primary care physicians have a rudimentary knowledge of the mental illness, they should never be relied on to provide a psychiatric diagnosis.
Once your teen is diagnosed with BD, don’t panic. There are effective medications, therapeutic counseling techniques, family therapies, and support groups available to help you learn how to manage this diagnosis successfully. In some ways, parenting a teen with bipolar disorder is no different than parenting a teen without bipolar disorder. You will still experience the normal ups, downs, and in-betweens all parents experience while raising a teenager and ultimately helping them transition to college life.
What are the best things a parent can do to help support their teen with Bipolar Disorder?
1. Educate Yourself About Bipolar Disorder
Hundreds of e-books, articles, and research papers are available online, providing the latest news about teenage Bipolar Disorder. Recent research findings have discovered that BD has a genetic component that may explain why your child now has BD. Did one of your siblings or close relatives exhibit possible signs of BD when you were growing up with them? Do you have a parent or grandparent diagnosed with a mental illness that presents bipolar symptoms?
Learning as much as you can about Bipolar Disorder and how it presents in children and teens will prepare you to discuss your child’s specific needs and treatment options with your mental health professional. It will also make it easier for you to understand why your child is acting this way and has little control over regulating emotions, thoughts, and impulses.
2. Talk to Your Teen About Bipolar Disorder
Parenting a bipolar teenager means always keeping communication lines open, accessible, and transparent with your teen. Don’t forget that even though your teen has a serious mental disorder, they still need the kind of wise, parental discipline and insight all adolescents need to mature into prepared adults. Never hesitate to set rules and boundaries for your bipolar teen. Creating structures and routines benefits their overall well-being by reminding them of the consequences of risky behaviors.
3. Keep in Touch with Your Teen’s Teachers
Inform your child’s school teachers about the diagnosis. Tell them what kind of medications your teen is taking and ask them to call you immediately if they notice any out-of-the-ordinary behavior. Your teen’s school counselor will also be glad to assist you. Contact them as well, to find out if the school has any support groups or resources for parents of bipolar teenagers.
4. Track Your Teen’s Moods
It may take a few weeks before you notice a change in your teen’s symptoms once they start taking medication. Extreme mood swings, cycling between mania and manic depression are symptoms of bipolar disorder. Begin keeping a "mood diary" of your teen as soon as they begin their medication regimen. Writing down dates and times when your child seems neither depressed nor manic can help you identify abnormal behavior when and if it does occur.
Sometimes, a certain medication will work well for a while and then suddenly stop working. Other times, your teen may find a medication that works well for years. In many cases, bipolar medication and/or dosage amounts will need adjustment until the right kind and dose is found that addresses your teen’s needs.
5. Plan Ahead When Scheduling Family Vacations and Other Activities
Teens with bipolar disorder are sensitive to abrupt changes in routine. Always give them enough time to adjust to change before they must participate in a family event. Even something simple as suddenly deciding to dine out for the evening when your teen thought you were cooking at home can make them feel upset or disoriented. If your teen balks at attending a planned event, this will give you time to talk to your child about why they don’t want to go and what you can do to help them resolve their indecision.
6. Reduce Family Stress As Much as Possible
Parents will need to learn to control their own emotions and avoid arguing with spouses or other children in the home when their BD teen can hear them. Stressful situations may trigger a sudden mood change, even if the teen is on medication. Anxiety and stress force cortisol release in the human body (fight or flight response) as the person gets ready to escape or confront a perceived danger. Stress hormones like cortisol can disrupt brain chemicals that have been re-balanced by medications. Although it is impossible to avoid all stress, it is doable to keep stress and chaos in the home to a minimum.
What Can Parents Do When Bipolar Teens Refuse to Take Medications or Participate in Psychotherapeutic Treatment Sessions?
Occasionally, teenagers with BD refuse to engage in any kind of treatment. Often they may need more than just medications and counseling once a week. Some teens won’t agree to take their meds as prescribed or show up for scheduled counseling programs simply because they are normal, rebellious adolescents. Others think there is nothing wrong with them, or they don’t like BD medications’ side effects. Drowsiness, nausea, and skin rash/acne are common side effects that are temporary and diminish over time. Still, many teens don’t have the patience to wait for their meds to begin working properly.
If you are parenting a bipolar teenager without much success and don’t know what to do next, consider placing your teen in a residential treatment center specifically designed to address the unique needs of teens with BD. This type of residential treatment center has experienced psychologists, counselors, and educators who collaborate to develop individualized treatment plans for each teen. During the day, teens go to academic class, engage in therapeutic activities, talk to caring counselors, and enjoy group sessions with peers who are experiencing similar issues with BD.
Know you are not alone as the parent of a bipolar teen. We can help you get your teen the treatment they need. A residential treatment center for teens with BD may be the answer. Call us today for more information.