Can Your Kids Help You Manage Bipolar Disorder?

We can teach the children in our lives to be open, honest and healthy around mental illness.

by Julie A. Fast

Can kids help us manager our bipolar disorder? Of course they can, but it does take a delicate approach that starts early. I will share my story and hopefully this can give YOU hope that having bipolar disorder as a parent, or in my case a very involved aunt is not a detriment.  Instead, it is a chance for you to teach a young person about bipolar disorder and mental health management in general.

My nephew was born in 2002. At age four, I started to talk to him about my bipolar disorder. I had no idea what I was doing, but I used my intuition and had basic rules I created that I have always followed:


  1. I told him from the beginning that I was simply describing what I go through when I get sick. I explained that he will never be responsible for me.
  2. I told him what to look for during my mood swings. Here is an example of how I explained my depression: David, on some days I can get on the floor and play Thomas the Train with you. I can laugh and have fun and hug you and roll around. That is the real me. The well me. On other days, you will notice that I am just sitting in a chair watching you play. I may cry a bit and I may smile through tears, that is my depression. It has nothing to do with you. It is simply my illness. Depressions is a mood swing I have because I have bipolar disorder. It is normal for me. You are not responsible for making me feel better, but watching you sure does give me joy even when I am sick.”
  3. As David got older, I told him exactly what to SAY to me when he saw that I was ill.   I explained my symptoms of mania and told him that he was always allowed to let me know if he thought I was manic. Today, he is very open to helping me recognize mood swings that I might not see at the beginning. For mania he says, “Julie, you are talking really loudly.” That is his code for saying, “Julie, you are manic.”  I get embarrassed when he says this. I think to myself- oh no. I missed the mania! I am a failure! On and on! But I stop myself quickly and say, “Thank you David. You are helping me stay well. I will work on my voice volume and do something about my mania.” This took years of practice, but it was worth it. It’s now second nature for him at age 15.
  4. He has two members of his immediate family with bipolar disorder. The chance he will have sings of the illness are high. He is ready for this. He knows what can cause symptoms to appear and is open about his moods. Like many teens, he has acne. He went to a dermatologist and said, “I can’t use steroids. My family has a history of bipolar disorder and steroids can cause mood swings.”  He did this on his own!


We never know if what we teach young children will stick. This was an experiment. I can say that it worked.  If you have bipolar disorder, yes, you can get help from the kids in your life. They need to know that they are in no way responsible for you- that is for other adults including health care professionals, but they CAN help you stay stable by knowing what to look for when you get sick and having a plan in place to help you find stability.

I will end with a story I know you will love! David was 11 during this story and he called me Auntie Wee.

I love travel and flying, but I always have to deal with anxiety. A lot of anxiety. David knows that I have panic attacks and suicidal thoughts when I travel. It’s a huge bother as I love to travel and it’s really a big part of our family life.  I started a panic attack right before leaving for the airport to fly to California where I was to give a keynote speech on bipolar disorder management.

We are in the living room packing my suitcase:

Julie: Darn it! I’m having a panic attack. I hate my bipolar disorder! I have to breathe. Let me sit down a minute. I can get through this. I won’t listen to what my brain is saying, but it’s pissing me off. I’m not going to die. 

David: Auntie Wee. We know what this is. This is your anxiety. It’s not about the plane flight. It’s the bipolar.

Julie: Yep. That is what it is. I wish I could just get on with my life and not have to go through this David. I hate it so much, but it’s here and it’s bipolar so I have to deal with it.

David: You sit in this chair. Now I’m going to go into the bathroom and I’m going to get a wash cloth and run it under the warm water. Then I’m going to get the lavender oil and put it on the wash cloth and put it on your forehead. You sit there and I’ll be back.

I sat in the chair and he put it on my head!

The kid was 11! He did what I taught him to do many years before. I had NO idea if what I was teaching him was getting through. It was. From age four to nine, he would listen and not talk as much. Around age ten, he started to interact with me and truly help in an appropriate way.

We can teach the children in our lives to be open, honest and healthy around mental illness.

You can start today!



Please click here to listen to a podcast I recorded with David when he was 15 called Talking with Kids About Bipolar Disorder. 

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