The Effects of Having a Parent With Bipolar Disorder – Observations by a Family Therapist

As a Marriage and Family Therapist and Family Psychologist, I have interviewed and treated many clients who grew up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder (manic depression). Here are my observations on the effects of having such a parent and recommendations for treatment:

Common Effects

Studies show that children who grow up with a parent with bipolar disorder often become adults who are plagued with of anxiety and self-doubt.

They also tend to be hyper-vigilant when it comes to romantic partners and their own children. And because these individuals grew up in homes where their needs were often unmet, it doesn’t take much for them to feel abandoned by their loved ones.

Childhood for these individuals often involved “competing” against the “ups and downs” of their bipolar parent’s symptoms just to get an ounce of attention. I have found for many of these “off-springs” this feeling of having to “compete” has continued into adulthood.

My clients report that they still struggle for their parents’ attention, because everyone’s attention is focused on their mentally ill parent’s fluctuating moods.

As a result, some of the effects I have noticed in children with one (or two) bipolar parents are:

  • emotional and psychological distress
  • learning disabilities
  • low productivity at work
  • diminished overall functioning.

Moreover, these clients often complain of feeling rejected by others (once they learn of their mentally ill parent), dysfunctional romantic relationships and friendships, on-going marital issues, domestic violence, and family avoidance.

Psychological Issues

Mental Illness & ADHD

According to a 2014 study, adult children of parents with bipolar disorder (BD) have a higher risk of developing psychosocial problems like promiscuity and risky sexual behaviors.

They are also at-risk of committing suicide, suffering with substance abuse or addiction, becoming “hyper-sexual,” experiencing on-going family conflict, and exhibiting dangerous and aggressive behaviors.

Thus, results indicate that bipolar disorder doesn’t just affect the person suffering from it; it also affects the lives of their loved ones, especially their spouses and children. Researchers also found that those, who exhibit promiscuity and risk sexual behaviors, were also prone to delinquency, domestic violence, secrecy, and aggression.

In addition, many adult children with a bipolar parent often complain of feeling helpless and hopeless, because they “can’t fix” their aging “sick parent.”

Some even report feeling depressed, angry, and frustrated, like they are somehow to blame for their parent’s condition. These individuals don’t like to tell others about their parent’s mental illness because they are afraid they will be judged or stigmatized if they do.

These researchers also found that young adults, who have parents with bipolar disorder, have a higher risk (14-fold chance) of developing early-onset bipolar disorder, an anxiety disorder, or another mood disorder (2.5-fold chance).

Lastly, results indicate that adult children with a bipolar parent may develop other conditions, such as oppositional-defiant disorder (ODD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Some adult children, who are currently experiencing depression or bipolar disorder, reported that their first episode(s) arose during adolescence. 

Substance Abuse & Addiction

According to studies, some parents turn to drugs and alcohol to “escape” their bipolar symptoms. The problem is their children are often present when they do this. As a result, they grow up believing that you can “escape” from your problems by using or abusing those same “vices” – alcohol and drugs.

So the off-spring of one or two bipolar parents has a heightened risk of substance abuse and addiction problems. This is especially true for those, who go onto develop bipolar disorder themselves. Their drugs of choice are typically alcohol (86%), pot (71%) and tobacco (21%).

Another study found that there is a positive correlation between PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in bipolar young adults who have at least one parent with bipolar disorder, and the development of substance abuse problems.

These findings suggest that bipolar disorder increases one’s risk of developing PTSD, especially if that individual also suffers from the disorder. Researchers believe that this increased risk may stem from environmental influences (watching their “sick parent” abuse drugs and alcohol), genetics, or a combination of both.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) 

Lastly, research suggests that adult children with at least one bipolar parent are more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), due to the trauma they experienced during their childhoods (growing up with a bipolar parent).

Feelings and Thought Patterns

Feelings and thought patterns I have noticed in my clients:

“No one cares about me.” 

Children with one or two parents with bipolar disorder are often plagued with loneliness and a sense of “helplessness.” They also report feeling unusually vulnerable towards things they cannot control. Many have shared with me that they feel unloved, unwanted, and abandoned, due to their past experiences with their mentally-ill parents.

The worst thing about growing up with a depressed parent is that you often feel invisible and unimportant, according to my clients. Moreover, they report that the “craziness” of their home lives during childhood has always made them feel that they would be judged by peers, romantic interests, spouses, friends, and even colleagues and co-workers, if they told them about their “sick parent.”

“I have experienced so much trauma and betrayal.”

Numerous clients have shared with me that surviving childhood was one of their biggest accomplishments. Why? Because of the trauma they experienced, as children and teens. These individuals report that their childhoods were often wrought with fear, confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety.

They also shared that the “other parent,” the one not suffering from mental illness, was often useless when it came to providing a stable home life for them. They believe this occurred because of the “healthy parent’s” inability to cope with their ill spouse or the situation, in general.

Another common theme I found amongst those with a parent with bipolar disorder is that they felt and still feel betrayed by their parents. Although they admit that they understood and accepted their mentally ill parent’s “situation,” they still felt betrayed by their “sick parent” and their “healthy parent.”

These individuals reported that because their parents failed to love, nurture, guide, support, and protect them, during childhood, those feelings of inadequacy, rejection, and betrayal followed them into adulthood. As a result, they have suffered or still suffer from low self-esteem, self-confidence, and sense of self-value.

“The pain from my childhood radiates to all aspect of my life.”

Another pattern commonly found in those with a parent with bipolar disorder is guilt, grief, anger, and despair. They also tend to suffer from self-blame. During childhood, most report that the full-scope of their “sick parent’s” condition was hidden from them. As a result, they grew up in a state of confusion. There was a shroud of secrecy that caused them to be ashamed of their families.

It was this secrecy and shame that caused them to develop panic attacks, anxiety disorders, and high stress levels – as children and as adults. Now as an adult, their primary worry centers on whether the mental illness will be passed on to their own children and grandchildren. As a result, many have either decided not to have biological children, or wait until they are older and better equipped to handle a child with a possible mental illness.

“I just want to ‘play it safe.’” 

Because my clients grew up in unstable homes, they often took over the role of “child-parent.” More specifically, they took over the “mother” and “father” roles for their siblings. And because most of their child and teen years involved caring for younger children and helping the “healthy parent” take care of the “sick one,” these individuals often felt dismissed, ignored, or overlooked.

To “keep the peace” as much as possible in the home, these individuals often learned how to “please others” – primarily because it provided them with safety and security within their families and peer circles. They just wanted to “fit in” with others – and still do. They want to be liked and accepted, and they crave praise and positive feedback. If they don’t receive the recognition they crave, they change their behaviors to attain it. As a result, they have a hard time relaxing and “just going with the flow.” 

“It caused me to grow up.” 

While many of my clients feel that having at least one parent with bipolar disorder hindered their growth and development, some reported that having a parent with a mental illness was actually a “blessing in disguise.” More specifically, they shared that having a “sick parent” caused them to mature faster.

It also helped them develop empathy, understanding, and compassion towards those suffering from chronic illnesses and disabilities. Thus their parent’s condition made them stronger and more resilient in the face of adversity.

“I refused to allow my childhood to dictate my future.” 

Many of my clients gained strength from focusing on the things they could control like their education, their own behaviors and attitudes, their treatment of others, and their relationships with others, including their own children. They reported that gaining an education (going to college) saved their lives and helped them move beyond their fractured childhoods.

Gaining an education allowed them to have more job opportunities, which gave them hope for the future. This achievement signaled to them that they could do anything they wanted despite their pasts and despite their parents. It didn’t matter if they didn’t overly excel in school, most still loved going to school (elementary, middle, and high school, and college) because it provided them with a much-needed respite from their turbulent an unpredictable home lives.

 Specific Effects on Adult Children

Listed below are only some of the effects that having a bipolar parent can have on an adult child:  

  • Constant anxiety
  • Self-blame and anger at the “healthier parent”
  • Feelings of shame, embarrassment, and guilt, as if the child “caused” the parent’s mental illness
  • Interrupted family routines leading to feelings of uncertainty and instability
  • A sense of loss because the “sick parent” will never be like they were before the illness
  • Shame over the parent’s condition
  • Social isolation
  • Difficulty concentrating at college or being productive at their job
  • Missed child and teen years, due to having to take care of a “sick parent” and any siblings
  • Family avoidance

My Recommendations

Children and adults with one or two parents with bipolar disorder would greatly benefit from speaking with a highly trained trauma-based mental health specialist (i.e. psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, psychotherapist, or clinical social worker).

The specialist can help them process what happened during their childhoods. It is important that these individuals have an opportunity to address and process their feelings about  how their parent’s illness affected them emotionally, mentally, socially, physically, and psychologically.

I believe that once they receive the help they need, these individuals will finally experience the relief, peace, and healing they need to fully move on with their lives.

It’s important that mental health professionals explain to their clients that the path to healing will not be an easy one. But that one’s childhood does not have to define who they become.

With hard work and dedication, children of bipolar parents can heal from their past traumas, and go on to live healthy, happy, and productive lives.


References

  1. McCormack, L., White, S. & Cuenca, J. (2016). A fractured journey of growth: Making meaning of a ‘broken’ childhood and parental mental ill-health. Community, Work & Family, 20(3), 327-345. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/13668803.2015.1117418
  2. Nijjar, R., Ellenbogen, M.A., & Hodgins, S. (2014). Personality, coping, risky behavior, and mental disorders in the offspring of parents with bipolar disorder: A comprehensive psychosocial assessment. Journal of Affective Disorders, 166, 315-323. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263049371_Personality_coping_risky_behavior_and_mental_disorders_in_the_offspring_of_parents_with_bipolar_disorder_A_comprehensive_psychosocial_assessment
  3. Birmaher, B., Axelson, D., Monk, K., et al. (2009). Lifetime psychiatric disorders in school-aged offspring of parents with bipolar disorder: the Pittsburgh Bipolar Offspring study. Archives General Psychiatry, 66, 287-296. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19255378
  4. Steinbuchel, P. H., Wilens, T. E., Adamson, J. J., & Sgambati, S. (2009). Post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorder in adolescent bipolar disorder. Bipolar Disorder, 11, 198-204. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2917470/

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