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The Impact of Having Bipolar Parents on Children

Updated on January 25, 2017
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The World Health Organization has called bipolar disorder (BD) one of the ten most burdensome medical conditions. The disorder’s main characteristics are emotional highs and lows such as extreme euphoria, and times of sadness and despair. Sometimes, people with BD have a decreased need for sleep and racing thoughts.

The lows are called depression and the highs are called mania. During low phases, the person has deep sadness and often withdraws from people. In the high phase, the person can be either too angry or too happy.

They are more outgoing than usually and have high energy. At other times, the person is like their usual self.

There are three sub-types of bipolar spectrum disorders:

  • Bipolar 1: has episodes of full-blown mania and major depression
  • Bipolar 2: episodes of less severe mania and major depression
  • Bipolar 3: called Bipolar Not Otherwise Specified, has elated or irritable moods with several other symptoms of the disorder

Common Questions children ask:

  • What is bipolar disorder?
  • What causes it?
  • Why does my mom or dad act the way she does?
  • What does it feel like to have bipolar disorder?
  • What is my mom or dad thinking when she is not herself?
  • What does “low mood” or “depression” mean?
  • What does “high mood” or “mania” mean?
  • How does bipolar disorder affect me?
  • How does it affect my family?
  • Why do people seem ashamed and do not want to talk about it?
  • Can bipolar disorder be fixed?
  • How can my mom or dad get better?
  • Will I get it too?

The kids’ viewpoint


When children become aware of their parents’ bipolar disorder, they have many questions. They may face a wall of denial when trying to talk to their family. The family may also keep the condition as a family secret for fear of stigma. If parents are hospitalized, children may feel fearful and insecure that they will lose their parent.

Children need to have a beginning conversation with their parents about bipolar disorder. Each conversation will be different depending on the child’s age and their ability to manage the information. Parents need to educate themselves about their disorder and be prepared to share the info with their kids.

It is important for children to receive correct information. Otherwise they may jump to wrong conclusions or blame themselves for things that are not their fault.

Children may be frightened when depressed parents say things such as: “I want to die.” It is important for children to have a support network and trusted adults to whom they can ask questions and raise concerns. Sometimes, medical professionals need to be alerted in cases where there is a real danger of suicide

An action plan

Youth can feel better if they make an action plan to determine how well their parents and deal with seeing mood changes in their parents that are concerning or frightening.

An action plan can include:

  • The name and number of an adult the child can call and numbers such as Kids Help Phone where they can discuss problems or ask questions
  • The child knows to call 911 if someone in is danger or hurt
  • A list of signs can be compiled by the child that shows the child that the parent is doing well
  • A list of signs can be compiled by the child that shows that the parents are not doing well

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Risk Factors for children of bipolar parents


A 2014 study by Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, revealed that the children of bipolar parents were more susceptible to psychological problems such as risky sexual behavior.

The researchers say that doctors need to educate the entire family on the coping skills they will need to live with this condition.

“In psychiatry, we tend to treat the patient — there’s never any evaluation of their family or kids or partners. Across my career, I’ve been saying that’s the wrong way of looking at the issues,” said Mark Ellenbogen, a psychology professor at Concordia University. “The children of BD patients are at high risk of developing a number of psychiatric and psychosocial problems. We need to think about interventions that will work for all members of the family.”

Children with bipolar parents are at a higher risk for a number of conditions.

Mental health risks

Young people who have parents with bipolar disorder have a 14-fold risk of developing early-onset bipolar disorder, and a two to three-fold risk anxiety disorders or mood disorders. Other conditions that may occur are disruptive behavior disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Some children who experience depression may become bipolar in adolescence.

Children with two bipolar parents are also at a higher risk of developing a mental illness than those with one bipolar parent. Bipolar disorder often emerges before the age of 12 with extreme emotional swings between mania and depression.

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Substance abuse

Some bipolar parents turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with their symptoms, exposing their children to hazards such as emotional and physical abuse. Some children who develop bipolar disorder will abuse substances themselves with alcohol being the number one choice, then marijuana, and tobacco.

Post traumatic stress disorder

Children with bipolar parents are much more likely to be exposed to family violence, witness a death, or experience sexual abuse. These situations can cause post-traumatic stress disorder.

Concluding thoughts

Medical professionals need to be more aware of the possible effects that bipolar parents can have on their children to ensure that the symptoms can be caught earlier and these children can receive appropriate treatment.

© 2014 Carola Finch

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    Kevin Goodwin 2 years ago

    I have been Bipolar for my entire life, seen so many doctors and hospitals but I have heard of Bipolar 3. Interesting to hear of this diagnosis.

  • MsDora profile image

    Dora Isaac Weithers 3 years ago from The Caribbean

    This is a really serious issue. Thank you for this helpful discussion. I worked with a bi-polar boss before I knew as much about the disorder as I do now; I could only imagine how confused and frustrated the children would be. Voted Up!