The most important thing you can do is to keep yourself as healthy as possible. This approach may sound a bit jarring, as culturally we’re encouraged to sacrifice for our children. But where there is such a strong connection between stress, disturbed daily rhythms, and mood episodes, it’s important to manage your stress and pay attention to routines, especially your sleep-wake cycle.
Create contingency plans, i.e., specific plans to have in place should you have a serious mood episode. Having designated family members (spouse, grand-parents, siblings) who are willing and ready to step in can decrease the disruption.
It’s important that your children know they are not responsible for your mood episodes. Young children can easily feel that they’ve done something wrong or bad if their parent is depressed, unhappy, or irritable. Letting them know in clear language that, “Daddy is sad right now, it’s not your fault, he loves you very much and he’s going to feel better,” will help relieve unnecessary worry and guilt.
Providing age-appropriate education to your kids will help them understand what’s going on. Let them ask questions, and reassure them that the moods will pass.
As your children get older, their concerns will change. They’ll wonder about their own risk for developing bipolar disorder and may want to know their chances for passing it on to their own children. As questions arise, help them find the answers they need.
Just as couples counseling can be a useful addition to treatment, so too can some family sessions help get all the unstated fears and questions on the table. Once out in the open, the specific issues can be addressed in a safe setting. Support groups can also be important sources of information and shared experience.
Finally, as your children become adults they may want to talk about their experiences, often painful ones, of growing up with a parent with bipolar. It’s important to listen without getting defensive, because at the end of the day, letting them know it’s okay to talk about these things will strengthen the relationship.