Children who have a parent who is affected by bipolar disorder may be more susceptible to stress. Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is a treatable illness marked by extreme changes in mood, thought, energy, and behaviour. Your family doctor, a psychologist or psychiatrist can diagnose bipolar disorder.

Bi-Polar and Child Stress Management

Children and teens of parents with bipolar disorder appear to have an increased risk of developing early-onset bipolar disorder, mood disorders or other anxiety disorders. Children whose mother or father is affected by bipolar disorder are more easily affected by environmental stress and may need to learn coping skills in order to reduce their stress levels. These children are four times as likely to develop mood disorders compared to the general population. This may be due to the genetic factors associated with bipolar. Children can experience their first bipolar disorder episode before they are 12 years.

Recent research done at Concordia University suggests the stress hormone cortisol is a key player in the mood disorder. The research suggests children and teens born in families with bi-polar parent(s) are more sensitive to stress, which in turn causes them to have higher levels of the stress hormone, cortisol in their bodies when compared to children and teens born in families without bi-polar parent(s). We know that long-term exposure to cortisol can lead to health problems such as; digestive problems, heart disease, sleep issues, depression, memory loss and obesity. The researchers believe this higher reactivity to stress (leading to higher cortisol levels) might be one explanation why these children and teens end up developing mood disorders and is a clear risk factor to becoming psychically or mentally ill later in life. A high level of unrelieved stress can lead to behaviour problems. It can interfere with your child’s ability to learn and to get along well with others, and eventually to poor physical health and illness.

As parents, it is important to be aware that your child may experience everyday stress as overwhelming. Researchers believe children become over sensitized to stress in childhood and that these negative effects can be reduced when parents teach their children and teens positive ways to cope with stress. Parents can also help their children by modelling positive coping strategies for stress and self care. It is important to recognize that not everyone responds the same way to stress and some children may still experience stress while hiding their emotional discomfort.

Simple stress management strategies can include:

  • Taking more time to help your child transition from one activity to the next. Learn to slow down and factor in additional time to change activities or to prepare to leave the house with your child. Rushing children only increases their stress levels and can lead to meltdowns.
  • Keeping your child on a regular schedule. Most children require 10 hours of sleep. Getting adequate sleep and creating a sleep friendly bedroom (no TVs in bedrooms) helps.
  • Eating a healthy diet. We know food and espeically processed foods have an impact on moods.
  • Exercising, playing outdoor games, and being active is a postive way to reduce stress.
  • Help your child learn how to relax through deep breathing exercise, yoga, quiet time, blowing bubbles, or other relaxation techniques.
  • Help your child express their emotions both positive and negative emotions and validate their emotional experiences. Explain the body mind connection to your child. There is a connection between the way our bodies feel and our emotions such as worry, sadness, fear, and positive emotions.
  • Offer verbal and emotional support when your children seem stressed. Tell them when you notice that they seem upset. Ask them where they feel the stress in thier body and how they feel.
  • Help your child express their emotions by modelling and expressing your own emotions. Children need to be taught how to be emotionally expressive. Talk about your feelings.
  • Model effective stress-management strategies. When you’re feeling rushed or stressed, stop yourself and say, “Wow, I’m feeling stressed. I’m going to take a few deep breaths to help me calm down.” Children who see parents using stress reduction tools are more likely to try them themselves.
  • Help your child create a diary or journal. Writing or drawing out your emotions is a helpful to learn how to express your emotions.
  • Allow your children to make choices that are age appropriate. This creates a sense of control in their life. When people feel they have control over a situation, they cope better.
  • Some children are more emotionally sensitive than others and more easily overwhelmed by exciting or stimulating situations. Limit exposure to situations that can be stressful. Be more aware and in tuned to your child if she or he is slow to warm up to strangers or large gatherings. Be prepared to slow down and adjust to your child’s needs.
  • Sometimes children don’t feel like talking about what’s bothering them. Don’t keep on prodding for an answer. Let your child know you are there to support him or her.
  • Your child may need time on her or his own with a quiet activity. Give your children time and space to unwind.
  • Seek professional therapy and counselling when needed.

No one technique will work all of the time for every child. Explore and ask your child which stress buster they like best.