What We've Learned: Tips for Raising a Child with Bipolar Disorder

GJ Gregory, who has battled bipolar disorder, shares the principles he and his wife have found most important in raising a son with bipolar disorder.

My wife and I have 5 kids in various stages of growth, including a son who's been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. When it comes to parenting, the one sure thing I've learned is that parenting is a challenge and we all make mistakes (and the kids take great delight in pointing out those mistakes). When you add a child with bipolar disorder into the mix, the challenge becomes a powder keg. It's not just the parents and the bipolar child who're affected - the entire family feels the pressure and the pain.

I am nothing without my wife and family. My wife is the person that can take my bipolar hypomanic phases and help me to stay grounded. She can take my depressions and help me to see light. She does the same for our bipolar son. She is the best wife, mother, and the wisest person I've ever known. We have been married for 26 years, and for her that's 26 years of ups, downs, and all the other typical (and not-so-typical) stuff that goes along with bipolar disorder. I asked her once if she was sorry she married someone like me. She gets this amazed look on her face and says "this has been a ride I wouldn't trade for anything." Because my wife is such an important part of who I am, I draw on her regularly for guidance, inspiration, and wisdom. This is one of those times.

I sat her down the other night, and we talked about parenting tips. Not that we're experts, but we have five kids and that at least qualifies us as "experienced". I have to be truthful, she is the real expert on this. Here's a list of "rules" that have worked for my wife and I as we've raised our family. These are not entirely specific to bipolar children, as the entire family dynamic is critical when raising a bipolar child. The family has to work together. Your children are equal, and they need to know this. They have to love and respect each other over all else. In this way, the negative effects of bipolar disorder on the child, and the entire family, are minimized as much as possible.

1. Treat each child individually. Whether it's a report card, accomplishments, or goals, look at them individually. Praise publicly, scold privately. Don't compare achievements, but celebrate them. Embrace uniqueness, but don't label one child as your bipolar child, one as your scholar, one as your athlete...

2. Expose them to, and encourage, diverse interests. Your bipolar child will tend to obsess on certain activities, so try to make it a healthy one. Open the door to sports, music, reading, scouting, etc. Some activities stick, and some fall away. Don't force activities on them. Their activities will be an effort financially and time-wise to you, but try to make it work.

3. Encourage spirituality. Spirituality is a common outlet for bipolar disorder. Our family prays daily, for each other and for others needing prayers.

4. Encourage giving. For several years we have had "Goodwill Christmas" where the kids have a five dollar limit and buy each other second hand gifts. This forces a lot of thought into a gift, and these have been some of our most memorable exchanges.

5. Jobs give purpose and self esteem. The responsibility of a job can be overwhelming for a child with bipolar disorder, so an outside job might not work. But they should have jobs around your house, and they can help in the care of each other. If making a job list for a bipolar child, keep in mind that getting from point A to point B can be overwhelming. So on your list, make small individual tasks that lead from A to B.

6. In our house, we never tolerated our kids being unkind to anyone or each other. We told them we could excuse many behaviors, but never being cruel to someone else.

7. Have fun together. The stresses of raising a bipolar child are difficult on the entire family. Embrace humor, and encourage laughter. While we don't make fun of each other we all laugh at ourselves from time to time.

8. If trouble arises, don't hesitate to help. For those with bipolar disorder, trouble will come, it's inevitable. They need to feel they can call you at any time, no matter what their condition. They know if they are drunk, or stoned, or just in over their heads, we'll pick them up any time, no questions asked (that night anyway). Siblings should be encouraged to take the same steps towards each other. You know you've done something right when your kids are as willing to help each other as you are to help your kids.

9. Open communication is a must. Talk about everything: feelings, punishments, jobs, each other, etc. Be careful about covering anything up. When a close relative came out of the closet, we spent weeks discussing it. Each child had their own questions, concerns, and input. It was all discussed, and each child emerged as a caring and accepting relative.

10. Value your children's opinions. You can learn so much from them. Listen to them completely, let them know their feelings and opinions are valid and important.

11. Go overboard for a good cause. Our bipolar son was a huge White Sox fan, and a struggling student. As a reward for a perfect final report card and some very hard work, we drove for hours to a game in Chicago. We have transported our kids all over the region in less-than-dependable cars for track meets, music festivals, drama tryouts, music lessons, and many more things.

12. Love your spouse openly. Don't put them down in front of your kids. Tell your kids the good traits of your spouse, and how you see those traits in them.

13. Encourage a vocation and hard work, but don't put too much importance on career or money. Our bipolar son holds himself to an impossibly high standard, as he wants us and others to be proud of him. I tell him I want nothing more for him than a life of happiness. I don't care if he works, has nothing, or becomes a millionaire. If he's happy, we've succeeded.

14. Volunteer for organizations in which your children are involved. School, church, sports, scouts, and so forth. You can see how your children get along with others, and assess their assets as well as their shortcomings.

15. Form relationships with your children's teachers. But remember that while their input is valuable, it's not the end-all.

16. Become your child's biggest advocate, and fight for an answer, even for those answers that don't come easily.

17. Never withhold love as a punishment.

18. Have fun with your children. Don't consider parenting a job - it is hard work, but these can be your most enjoyable times.