As the child of a mother with bipolar disorder, you may have found that you are more like a parent than a child. While it can be frustrating to feel like you have responsibility for your mother and her seemingly never-ending needs, there is hope!
What Does Bipolar Disorder Look Like In a Mother?
Bipolar disorder is a disorder impacted by imbalances of brain chemistry, causing moderate to severe mood swings. When bipolar disorder is properly diagnosed and treated, there is hope for a happy, well-balanced life. However, when left untreated, bipolar disorder can lead to undesirable impacts on their lives and their loved ones.
Some barriers to adequately treating the disorder lie in the nuances such as:
- Cycles of bipolar disorder (fluctuating between depressive and manic states)
- Medication management to find the proper dosages
- Medication compliance, even through unwanted side effects and when the person isn’t experiencing negative symptoms
- Access to affordable treatment
If you grew up with a mother diagnosed (or possibly undiagnosed) with bipolar disorder, you might have witnessed severe depression resulting in suicide attempts or difficulty getting out of bed for multiple days. You may have also experienced extreme anger, aggression, irritability, and unpredictability during manic periods. However, those same manic episodes provided you with times of spontaneous fun that resulted in happy memories for the family.
A struggle with being a mother with bipolar disorder is that people can often misconstrue that she is hormonal or overwhelmed by the demands of her household, not that she is struggling with a mental health disorder. This misunderstanding can go further as bipolar disorder can often be misdiagnosed as depression, anxiety, and even borderline personality disorder (borderline mother) because symptoms may not present themselves all at once. Therefore diagnosis can take some time to gather the complete picture, leading to poor treatment efficacy until that time.
Symptoms of a manic episode include:1
- Inflated sense of self/grandiosity (i.e., delusions of grandeur)
- Decreased need for sleep
- More talkative than usual
- Racing thoughts or Flight of Ideas
- Increased goal-directed activity
- Psychomotor agitation
- Excessive involvement in high-risk behaviors and activities
Symptoms of a depressive episode include:1 :
- Sleeping too much
- Increased appetite and weight gain
- Decreased appetite and weight loss
- Slowed speech
- Difficulty carrying out everyday activities
- Anhedonia (little to no interest in previously enjoyed activities)
- Increased thoughts of death and suicidal thoughts
When diagnosing bipolar disorder, a medical professional will distinguish it as a specific type of bipolar disorder, with examples such as:1, 2
- Bipolar 1: The average age of onset is 18 years, with presentations of mania lasting at least seven days, including depressive episodes. Diagnosis is usually more straightforward due to the severity of the symptoms that may require hospitalization.
- Bipolar 2: At an average onset at 25 years old, it is characterized by milder forms of mania (i.e., hypomania) for at least four days, including depressive episodes. This type is more challenging to diagnose due to milder symptoms but can be perceived as more “functional” in daily activities.
- Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder: A more severe type that includes four or more mood swings within a year lasting from a week to a few months. These cycle frequencies and fluctuations between moods include:
- Classical: 3 days to 12 weeks
- Ultra Rapid: 3 days
- Ultra-ultra Rapid: 24 hours
Five Signs of a Bipolar Mother
Being the child of a mother with Bipolar Disorder can be frustrating and confusing. If your mother decides to seek help, it could still be misdiagnosed, leading to ineffective treatment. If your mother refuses to acknowledge her potential diagnosis, it can make surviving the mood swings much harder. We can sometimes be left in the dark about our mothers’ knowledge of their diagnosis to protect us from the reality they faced. But by knowing the signs of a mother with bipolar disorder, we can better understand the reality of our childhood and provide ourselves with clarity.
Here are five possible signs of a mother with Bipolar Disorder:
1. Ruined Birthday Parties
As a kid, birthday parties can be so much fun, from planning to the cake, decorations, and entertainment. For children with bipolar mothers, you may have experienced an overly excited or involved mom during the planning stage, only to experience an overwhelmed, angry, and potentially absent mom during the actual party. Even more so, this party could have resulted in your mother participating in heavy drinking or reaching a deep depression that can take away from the party altogether.
2. Shopping Sprees
Back-to-school shopping can be fun to begin the school year unless your parent has an impulsive spending problem (or a compulsive shopper). A mother with bipolar disorder may go overboard on back-to-school shopping, birthday party supplies, or home decor. While this may seem minor, it becomes a significant problem when the funds aren’t there to cover these large purchases.
These sporadic sprees can result in higher stress levels, more anger, and unpredictability surrounding essential needs like food or being able to pay the electricity bill each month. Even more so, as your mother is no longer experiencing a grandiose perception of your family’s financial abilities, they may have had a habit of returning the things they bought for you.
3. Always Playing the Victim
If you’ve ever tried to bring up your concerns to your mother, she may have met you with statements like, “Oh, I’m such a terrible mom! You’d be better off without me!” or “You didn’t seem to feel this way when I was slaving away over your birthday party last month!”. These responses can result from defensiveness when confronted with hard truths about their behavior.
The “victim mentality” can cause you to second guess how you feel or if you are not appreciative of what your mother does for you. These responses can become even more overwhelming for the child when a depressive state follows it, leading them to feel guilty about their feelings or for speaking up when something is wrong.
4. House Renovations
Coming home from school at the end of the day and seeing your house completely redone may have been exciting the first few times. But after a while, it can become overwhelming to see your home in disarray, to only go unfinished for weeks. The difficulty with projects started in a manic episode is the lack of progress during a depressive episode. You may find your living room a construction zone for months, with no signs of the project being completed.
5. Manipulative Behaviors
To avoid responsibility for their actions or to get you to stay on their side, a mother with bipolar disorder may engage in acts of emotional manipulation. A specific example would be coming to the rescue when struggling with peers or other family members. Your mother may agree with you and choose to feel that anger with you. Then, when the time feels right, they may use this to make you feel guilty, saying, “I took your side when you were arguing with your father; now you owe me.” Or making you feel indebted to them because it is you and them against the world and everyone else.
These manipulative behaviors and tactics that may present in a mother-daughter dynamic involving bipolar disorder can include:
- Guilt trips
- Exploiting insecurities
- Threatening to share personal things
- Intentional embarrassment
- Love bombing
- Silent treatment
- Becoming the center of an argument
Effects of Growing Up With a Bipolar Mother
Growing up with a Bipolar mother can, genetically, put you as a child at a higher risk of developing bipolar disorder. It is not guaranteed, but different catalysts such as hormonal changes (puberty, childbirth), drug and alcohol use, trauma, and head injuries can increase the potential for the onset of the disorder.3. Aside from the genetic risk of developing bipolar disorder, the environmental factors of growing up with a bipolar mother can also affect overall well-being later in life.
This impact from your environment can contribute to one of the main challenges of your experience in deciding whether or not to maintain contact with your mother once you are old enough to move out. This decision will not be necessary for everyone as healthy and positive relationships with your mother, despite their bipolar disorder, is possible. However, for those who have considered this, you first need to understand how they may still negatively impact you.
Some potential effects of growing up with a bipolar mom include:
The presence of trust issues is understandable when your mother’s symptoms and behaviors potentially shaped your early development and attachment styles. Part of this can be due to the unpredictability of her erratic behavior or the emotional manipulation you have endured.
Trust issues can present difficulty in romantic relationships as you may not believe the validity of what a person is telling you. It can also look like overthinking in a relationship and reading into everyone’s responses because you are unsure if their intentions are accurate or will stay consistent. This issue can negatively impact your romantic, work, and peer relationships.
Self-blame can be prevalent, especially if you were often gaslit by your mother to believe you were responsible for preventing or reducing the mood swings she was enduring. Whether through guilt trips, gaslighting, or your own internalized responsibility for your mother’s condition, you may find that when things go wrong, you blame yourself for not doing, planning, or reacting better to a situation. This self-criticism can lead to increased anxiety and depression, especially surrounding social situations or personal relationships.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can develop based on a lack of structure and control in the household. The lack of control can lead to obsessive thoughts about improving the situation, leading to compulsions. An example would be: “If I make sure the living room is clean every day, my mom won’t have a mood swing, and everything will be okay.” These thoughts then turn into compulsions such as obsessive cleaning and tying your mother’s mood swings to whether or not you did a “good enough” job.
Depression and Anxiety
The unpredictability of living in a home of a bipolar mother can leave a child feeling unseen, unheard, and misunderstood. It can also make the child feel like a failure and never “good enough” for their bipolar parent. There is also a high likelihood that, at times, a child may experience childhood emotional neglect at the hands of their mother. This neglect can come from manic episodes where there is an intense hyper fixation on other things or during a depressive episode when the mother cannot get out of bed or engage with their child meaningfully. Unpredictability, feelings of being a failure, life feeling out of control, and general neglect as a child can lead to depression and anxiety in adulthood.
Jealousy Over Other People’s Mothers.
A common complaint of adult children of mothers with bipolar disorder is when they first realize their mother wasn’t “normal.” Often, these adult children will struggle with why their mom isn’t like the other moms. Why didn’t their mom seem as loving or involved in their life? These thoughts can result in questions about what they did wrong or what their life would have been like with another mother.
When you spend significant time navigating emotional manipulation, unpredictability, and stress, you may feel like this is what you “deserve.” Frequently children of bipolar mothers will have a low sense of self-worth or self-esteem because of the treatment they endure. They believe they “deserve” to be yelled at, manipulated, neglected, and misunderstood. This opinion can cause them to seek friendships or relationships that mirror their relationship with their mother and fail to establish healthy boundaries.
How to Cope With Having a Bipolar Mother
First and foremost, it is essential to remember that you are not responsible for your mother’s disorder. It can be hard to believe that, as it impacts your day-to-day life, and your mother may feel you are responsible for her symptoms and behaviors. However, prioritizing yourself and your own emotional and physical well-being is your responsibility (just like your mother’s emotional and physical well-being are her own). The cliche often says, “you cannot pour from an empty cup.” While it is said a lot, it remains true. You must learn to take care of yourself before learning to care for someone else.
Some tips to help you cope with having a bipolar mother include:
Know When to Walk Away
This decision may be one of the hardest you will have to make. It isn’t easy to walk away from your mother, especially if you have felt responsible for her and her well-being. While this may become your reality, it doesn’t have to start there. You can begin by setting boundaries with your parents for the benefit of yourself and your mother. Learning to say no, not answering your phone on the first call, and having a limit on in-person time are all boundaries that you can start with.
If you are trying to decide whether or not to walk away, start to ask yourself some questions like:
- “When was our last fulfilling interaction?”
- “Is she seeking the appropriate help she needs to manage her disorder?”
- “Do I trust her with my children?”
If you cannot answer those questions positively, it may be time to start taking steps toward walking away. It doesn’t mean it has to be forever; it just means that, at this moment, a relationship with your mother is not working for you.
Accept Who You Are
We learn avoidance behaviors as a survival tactic when we are young. Avoidance can be the secret to success when living with a bipolar mother. However, in adulthood, it can be the thing that prevents you from healing. While there is a stigma surrounding bipolar disorder based on its portrayal in the media, it is not something for you to be embarrassed about or lead to an identity crisis. Every person has a unique story, including yourself, and it can be helpful for you to talk through it, not only for yourself but for others with similar experiences.
Develop Your Community
Developing a community can look different based on each individual’s needs. Finding a support group dedicated to children of mothers with bipolar disorder can be helpful. Finding friendships where you have had similar experiences with your mothers can also be beneficial. These communities can help you feel less isolated and alone. They can help you feel seen, heard, and finally understood.
As mentioned before, the impact on your mental health can be considerable when you grow up with a bipolar mother. It can be helpful to process some of the experiences that have caused potential depression or anxiety for you. Also, because of the genetic predisposition, seeking treatment early in case you experience similar symptoms of bipolar disorder can be helpful. The earlier you seek appropriate treatment, the better the outcomes for yourself and your loved ones.
Depending on your needs, it can be helpful to seek individual psychotherapy for yourself, family therapy if your parents are willing to work on this with you, or group therapy if you’re looking for more of a community. You can best choose a therapist who uses these types of treatment through Choosing Therapy’s online therapist directory.
Growing up with a bipolar mother can be challenging and overwhelming. While there are many times you may feel alone, isolated, and misunderstood, there is hope, and you are not alone. Remember that your well being comes first and that you may need to cut ties to give yourself a break if need be. Still, with proper treatment and therapy, there is still potential to live a full and happy life and maintain a meaningful relationship with your mother, no matter what disorder she may have.