Parents get most of the headaches when dealing with bipolar kids. They almost inevitably are the ones who have to pick up the pieces when their child has a meltdown, are often the ones who have to deal with a troubled child through the teens and twenties and thirties, and possibly later.
And in all the scenarios, parents feel the guilt. There is always the feeling of “I don’t know what to do” or “Why didn’t I do something sooner” or “If I had done something differently, my child wouldn’t be bipolar”.
All of the above have come up in discussions with my parents over the years. And in spite of everything I have told them about this not being true, and in spite of the amazing support they and my brother have provided to me, my parents STILL somehow think my being bipolar is their fault.
I suppose it’s a parent’s thing.
To parents who are struggling with this, here’s what. When I was growing up, there wasn’t a lot of information easily available out there. There’s more information now that being bipolar has increased in awareness. But it’s still not fingertip information, the way information is available on what to do if your child has measles or food poisoning.
More importantly, the symptoms that your child might be bipolar aren’t obvious – they look like lots of other things. Very often, you have to rule out those other things before you can say, well, maybe my child might be having mood swings.
When bipolar symptoms start appearing doesn’t help either. Most people start manifesting signs of being bipolar in their teens (I was 15-16 when I started getting the mood swings – but see below). The problem is that teenagers are, well, teenagers. They always act weird and different from week to week. How is a parent supposed to tell the difference between their teen child being bipolar and their teen child being a teen?! You can’t really say “My kid is acting strangely, OMG, they’re bipolar!”
In practice, the only way to tell is by evidence over a period of time – measured from months to a year or two. And yes – it can take that long to collect enough evidence to even decide to go to a psychiatrist or to get a decent diagnosis.
Here are some of the things that happened to me that you can look out for. While none of these alone say anything, together they can form a pattern.
- Complaints of vision and hearing. From the age of 11 to the age of 15, I persistently complained to my parents that in school I could not see the blackboard or hear the teacher properly if I was placed in the middle or back of the class. And yet each time I went for vision and hearing tests, they always came back normal.
Eventually both the school and my parents gave up and let me have a desk in the front of the class. Or later on, when I could select where to sit in class I always chose a desk at the front.
Although I only definitively remember getting mood swings from about 15-16, I now mark these complaints as the first of my bipolar symptoms.
- Grades drop. From about the age of 16, I found it becoming harder and harder to focus to study. I managed to just make it through high school without my grades actually dropping, but my university grades were abysmal. I dropped out of or failed a lot of the courses I took, and I even had to take a semester off because I couldn’t cope. All in all, I just barely scraped through getting a Bachelor’s degree at all.
I was lucky that my grades didn’t drop in high school, but if your kid’s grades start dropping for no obvious reason or after you have talked with the school and ruled out any other typical reasons (bullying, relationship issues, hanging with the non-studying crowd, etc.), this might be a reason to start thinking about possible mood swings. Especially if your child is as confused as you are – they will not understand why they are suddenly starting to do badly at school either.
This is especially so if you ask what is happening and you get responses like (a) I don’t know why, (b) I can’t seem to concentrate, (c) I can’t seem to focus, (d) I get distracted easily, (e) I can’t seem to settle down to study, (d) The work got a lot harder recently, (e) I can’t memorise the information, (f) I can’t remember what I studied.
Or their response is the next point.
- Your child has this sort of blank look when you are talking to them. You’ll feel like you are talking to a wall or a zombie. The official term for this is ‘having a flat affect’.
This is very different from them not paying attention. Not paying attention is your child being there and choosing to not listen to you. They may be annoyed at you, or they may feel as if standing there having to listen to you is wasting their time, or they may glaze over because they heard the same talk from you 3 times this week already, but regardless, they are present. You can feel that they are present. This blank look feels like they are not even present at all, that you are talking to just a body which says yes and no and is mostly polite but which feels as if there is nobody inside or nobody there at all. That you are perhaps shouting down an empty well.
The flat affect is very disconcerting. I used to teach and one of my students had this and it was very different from any other thing I had ever come across. I’d have a hard time believing that an annoyed or upset teenager could pull it off.
If you get this sensation when talking to your kid more than a few times, I’d say it’s a good time to chat with the school counselors, or your doctor, or a therapist.
- Your kid wants to be left alone / wants to be quiet. You’ll find that they don’t want to go to large or noisy family gatherings / parties / weddings, or they don’t want to go to places with lots of people or loud music or loud groups, like busy shopping malls or downtown or parties. Usually the explanation will be “It’s too loud / has too many people” with the usually unspoken “and I can’t cope with all the stimulus”.
This has happened to me, and since I come from a very large family, Christmas and family gatherings and weddings were very much a chore. I often hated to go and I hated being there if I had to go, and I could often be found in a quiet area far away from the music and people. At which point I was told I was being unsociable. I hated being introduced to new people too, which didn’t help.
You might also find that your kid likes to find quiet spaces to be alone and that they like being alone a lot.
All of this could be attributed to being a teenager, so this type of behaviour is not in itself a thing to be worried about. However I do remember my mother telling people fairly often “He’s very moody and he likes to be alone”, and I look back and I think “Aha! – there was an early sign of my mood swings”. If you find yourself saying this about your child / thinking it frequently, this may be a sign something is wrong.
You might find that in spite of the dislike of large numbers of people, your child may be perfectly fine with small gatherings of three to six people and they may behave perfectly fine in these settings.
- Your child may become unusually irritable, and prone to outbursts of anger way out of proportion to the triggering incident. If you ask their friends, they will also have noticed that your child has been having bursts of anger toward them or other people and they’ve found it somewhat odd as well.
This also can be a teenager thing, so it’s hard to use this alone as a symptom. But if you are seeing some of the other symptoms, this one can act as support.
- Your child becomes messy. Your kid used to be fairly neat, and now you find they have started to become pretty messy. Or they used to be pretty good about doing chores, and now you find that they have gotten pretty erratic / bad about doing the chores, and shouting at them to do it doesn’t seem to work.
Again, this can just be a teenager thing. But this can act as a supporting symptom, especially if the timing of when it starts to happen matches up with some of the other symptoms.
- You child doesn’t want to get out of bed. For the whole day. For a week. Or stays at home and watches 14 hours of television a day. For days on end. They don’t want to go to school / meet friends / have friends visit / exercise / and sometimes not change out of their clothes for a few days.
Teenagers can be superlatively lazy on occasion. But it usually doesn’t go on for days. Once activities like the above start going on for a few days, it’s perhaps time to take notice, and if it happens more than once or twice, it’s perhaps time to talk with a counselor / therapist to find out what is happening. They may not be bipolar, but something is going wrong that needs to be sorted out.
- You find cut marks on your child’s forearms, upper arms, thighs, chest or elsewhere. Certainly ask your child about it, but organise to see a therapist or counselor or psychiatrist soon. For me, the cut marks were the tryout to see how much it would hurt if I were to attempt suicide. Other people make cut marks for other reasons, but generally the reasons are of the kind that therapy would help.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The above are NOT a collection of symptoms for diagnosing a person as bipolar. Only a psychiatrist can do a diagnosis. All the above are signs that I exhibited at the onset of becoming bipolar. There are probably other signs that I did not exhibit (and please feel free to write them in the comments).
If however, have reached to my website, then you are already worried about your child. I would suggest that if your child is showing many of the above signs, then you should contact a counselor or therapist or psychiatrist, because something might be wrong. They in turn will be able to tell you if something is wrong or not, and provide a proper diagnosis.
I will always hope that it will work out that there is nothing wrong with your child except teenage emotions.
If it turns out that your child is bipolar, or has depression, or any of the very similar diagnoses, it’s going to be difficult. You’ll be needed there to support them. I can’t tell you not to feel somehow responsible, because that’s what parents do. But being bipolar is a medical thing, like diabetes or short sighted vision. And it is extremely difficult to diagnose unless things have gone very wrong. It’s not your fault that your child is bipolar, and it’s not your fault that you are only now thinking it might be mood swings.
Don’t worry about what has gone by. Just focus on how you can help your child now.