Bipolar Disorder

“It Was The Illness Talking And Not My Loving Son.”

When a child with ADHD and bipolar disorder has said or done something hurtful, how do you keep the love and support going? Learn more from these parents who have discovered how to manage meltdowns and when to walk away.

Children with ADHD and Bipolar Disorder: Meltdowns and Anger

Recently, our daughter, who has been stable for well over a year, had a rage. It was a full-blown, door slamming, wall-kicking, filled-with-“I hate you’s” and “you’re the worst parent ever” rage.

My heart skipped a few beats as I tried to remain calm. It wasn’t the words that upset me, but rather the uncertainty. I asked myself: Was this a bipolar hiccup, an isolated setback? Or was this the beginning of an unstoppable slide down a slippery slope?

Two hours later, my daughter hugged me and said, “I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t really mean that you should rot in hell.” I bit my lip, trying not to laugh from relief. My little girl was back. She knew that her behavior and words were not OK. Her apology was sincere.

In cases like this, the words rarely hurt. They roll off of me like water off the back of a duck. It’s easy, in these situations, to separate the ugly behavior from my normally loving and compassionate kids. It’s the illness talking, not my child. But there are other times when hurtful words cut to the quick.

What’s incredibly difficult is when we have been under siege for weeks on end. To experience irritability and uncertainty day after day, and engage in 24/7 caretaking, wear me down. I start to lose perspective. I feel resentful about being robbed of any personal time, any chance to refuel, any way to get simple day-today tasks done. And I feel guilty for feeling that way. It is, after all, my child who is suffering so severely. This is the kind of situation when words sting.

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I also am much less patient with my child’s short fuse when I feel as if she isn’t doing her part with regard to her wellness. By this I mean she may have missed her meds, is not getting enough sleep, is following an unhealthy diet or refusing to exercise or get some fresh air. As my daughters get older, I expect them to contribute more to their wellness plans. When it seems like I’m contributing 90 percent of the effort, I have much less tolerance for any verbal attack.

So, when do I speak up? Or rather (because I don’t always get the timing right), when should I speak up? I try not to react in the heat of the moment when my child is on a long road of instability. If my child is really ill, she isn’t going to process anything that I’m saying. But if hurtful words escalate into verbal abuse, I will remind my child that we still have boundaries and no matter how ill she is, there are certain lines that cannot be crossed. In this case, I’ll tell my daughter that her words and behaviors are not acceptable and that she needs to take some time to regroup before she re-engages with our family. I see these moments as opportunities for her to learn cause and effect. Poor self care leads to instability which leads to behaviors that can threaten or damage relationships. Because we are family, we will always forgive and we will always love our children. But the outside world may not be as understanding.

Nanci Schiman, MSW, has been with CABF for seven years, first as a volunteer and now as program manager-coordinating parent to parent programs, support groups, online chats and forums.

At Parent Support for Raising Kids with Severe Mood/Bipolar Disorder, a monthly group I host on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, parents share a range of responses to this question. Some say that they’ve reacted immediately and strongly to especially offensive behavior, hoping to send the message that their child has crossed a line. One couple said that “losing it” in certain circumstances was worth it: afterward their kid showed remorse and reflection, which in turn led to discussing ways of avoiding such hurtful behavior in the future. Others regret exposing their feelings “in the moment,” when their kids are too defensive to admit caring. And there are those couples that save their feelings for our group, collapsing in a heap and declaring, “I’m devastated! He’s a horror!” They move forward with us in order to move forward at home.

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I’ve tried these strategies and everything in between, and you know what? I think ultimately it’s a crapshoot; no one strategy works as a rule, and you can’t always use a formula. My spouse and I use what I call “heightened parenting” – an exquisite grassroots art form we believe all parents raising mood labile kids come to use. Being tested frequently to the nth degree, parents like us have learned to heighten intuition, foresight, reflective tools and flexibility of direction as we interact with our kids to make their lives (and ours) better. These are the same skills and motives on which great artists rely.

Heightened parenting requires that we all move fluidly in response to a spectrum of contradictory challenges that come zooming at us. We’re philosophical and action-oriented, demonstrative and zen. We “artisan parents” are the Martha Grahams of parenting: good with odd angles, spontaneous, fast on our feet, deliberate, and able to swoop and duck at just the right moments. It’s all really in the timing.

I wish our dance could be as pretty as Ms. Graham’s choreography. Ours is messier. In crisis, it’s easy to put too much responsibility on my son, and tell myself he’s emotionally flooded, shut down. But, there are two sides flooding during emotional crises; mine is just better modulated. Pressing him to listen to me and respond “in the moment” is a subtler form of parental escalation. So, some personal hurt is my own doing. Anyway, expressing my hurt often turns into his opportunity to feel more hurt. Maybe you’ve heard this: “You don’t want me to be happy, or have anything! You don’t want me to have a good life! You hurt me!” I stare blankly. This was supposed to be my turn. Ah, well.

Kim, our son’s boarding school social worker says the best thing to do in these moments is to “dig down.” She means, don’t respond. That’s what I tell myself whenever I feel hurt by a dig. I use his dig to “dig down” positively, focus on breathing, tune out the noise, ignore unwanted behavior and wait until I think through what I want to do. Martha Graham, remember? Poise. Discipline.

As for keeping the love and support going? Even through exhaustion and hurt, that’s what we heightened parents do. Hate the illness, love the child. [Repeat.] Right?

It may seem counterintuitive, or God forbid selfish, to focus on myself in times of parenting crises. But when my son is threatening or demeaning, I help us both by keeping my own controls — I allow myself to rest, regroup and readjust.

It’s an intricate dance we parents do, at once strictly choreographed and then improvisational. Sometimes, our work is brilliant; sometimes we misstep. But, hey, that’s art.

Jerry Pavlon-Blum, MA, MEd, is a CABF board member

Being a single mom definitely has its disadvantages in situations when your child is lashing out at you verbally. There have been times when I walk in the door after a long day and it’s like walking into a war zone. I have no time to prepare or decompress from work, and the attack is on. Being a police officer certainly has its own challenges, but coming home from work and dealing with an unstable kid sometimes makes me lock myself in a room and cry.

It took me years to learn that this was the illness talking and not my sweet and loving son. Although I would love to tell you that I am a perfect parent, this I am not. I wish I could say that I have learned to ignore the verbal abuse, but I haven’t. I’ve lost my temper many times, and each time it only resulted in complicating the situation.

After many years of trials and tribulations, I have learned to lean on those closest to me for love and support. Sometimes just having someone listen to me is comfort enough. Other times, someone has had to step in and offer my son the love and support that I am unable to provide at the moment. I believe it takes a village to raise a child. Thankfully, I have a network of support in place for my son – psychiatrist, psychologist, teachers, crisis workers, social workers, family and friends. The key, for me, is to keep in constant communication with all of them and exchange information about my son’s needs. This has helped me to create some balance in an otherwise unbalanced life.

When dealing with a mentally ill child, I’ve found that I have to pick my battles to win the war. I have to know when to take a stance and hold my ground, and when to give in and simply forgive; it all depends on my son’s level of stability.

One thing I try to do when my son is verbally lashing out is to tell him, “I love you, but you are hurting my feelings.” When a certain level of calm is reached, I remind him of how much I love him, and we sit down and discuss the bad behaviors or words that were used and what we can do as a family to prevent that in the future.

Can I say this is a foolproof plan? No, but we are making progress.

Julie Joyce, CABF volunteer and Chicago Police officer who is part of the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT)

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Reprinted with permission from bp Magazine. All rights reserved. For more articles like this one, visit