How can I help my young child with bipolar disorder?

Ms. Julie A. Fast
Mental Health Specialist

Bipolar disorder is triggered by life events. Preparing for symptoms is the #1 way to help a young child manage the illness. Birthday parties, for example, offer a perfect environment to help your child handle average bipolar symptoms. When your child is well, she has a certain way of behaving. She may walk into a room without fear, say hello to a mother, help herself to a drink, put her present on a table and forget about it and sit down and talk with the other kids. This ‘regular’ behavior can be reinforced when it happens. When a child is easily triggered or is already ill, walking into a birthday party can bring up symptoms such as fear that something is going to go wrong, an inability to talk to an adult, the worry that he brought the wrong present or depending on the symptom, loud talking, running around or trying to open a present that isn’t his. The secret is to talk about this possibility before the party. Here is a script you can use.

Peter, you know that bipolar can be triggered by something exciting like a birthday party. You’re going to Melissa's party on Saturday and now is a good time for us to write down what might happen when you get there. Let's pretend you are at the party and you can tell me how you want to act. Let's think about who you will talk to, how you will walk around, what you will say and what might happen throughout the day. Parties are fun, but they are also stimulating. We know that your brain might get really excited or it might shut down a bit as sometimes happens when there are a lot of people. Here are three things to say or do when you're at the party.

  • It’s ok to feel overwhelmed and even a bit sad. This is what my brain does when it sees a lot of people.
  • I can remember to watch my voice and how loud and fast I’m talking.
  • I can take a break and go to another room, call you or go into the bathroom to calm down a bit before going back to the party.

Even very young children can come up with a plan on what to do when symptoms show up. As a parent, you can teach your child it’s ok to have bipolar symptoms at a social event. It’s normal. Adults go through this as well.

It’s never too early to talk to your child about bipolar disorder. It’s an illness that is triggered by life events such as parties. Why not normalize this and let the child know she or he has the ability to have fun, even when symptoms show up!

Here are some ways you can help your child with bipolar disorder:

  • learn relaxation techniques to help your child cope with stress; ask your child's doctor for guidance and resources
  • research coping strategies that have worked for others
  • provide outlets for your child to express feelings through art, music, play and other special interests your child has
  • make sure you maintain routine and structure in your daily activities
  • at the same time, give your child sufficient freedom within limits
  • try to arrange a calm, low stress environment in the home
  • when disciplining, focus on problem-solving rather than criticism and punishment
  • talk to your child's school about an individualized educational plan (IEP) to help your child be successful at school

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.