Question: Should I be taking parenting classes on how to parent, understand, or learn how to best support our kids living with mood disorders, bipolar, or Fear of Harm?
Answer: Parents of children living with bipolar and/or Fear of Harm should be cautious when they’re referred to, or are contemplating, parenting classes.
When a child is diagnosed with a “behavioral disorder” parents are often immediately referred to these kinds of classes by well meaning psychiatrists, therapists, and school counselors. The goal is for them to learn how to “manage their children” who have been diagnosed with a behavioral disorder.
But mood disorders, bipolar disorder, and Fear of Harm aren’t
actually behavioral disorders, and the use of that term is
not really accurate when discussing disorders that have a biological basis.
As a result, the traditional behavior management techniques that are taught in traditional parenting classes can intensify and escalate the symptoms of a mood disorder, bipolar disorder, or Fear of Harm. Worse, that escalation can potentially create an explosive situation. Simply put, what works for neurotypical children isn’t going to be the solution for children living with mood disorders. Desperate parents find themselves trying everything and anything suggested to them in these classes, but often have very little success.
This is why we at CHMRC use a different approach in our parenting class*.
As we said, bipolar is not truly a “behavioral” disorder. A growing body of research is showing that bipolar is more likely a metabolic or energy disorder. The behaviors we see children, teens, and adults with bipolar exhibiting when they’re unstable are not willful behaviors, they are observable symptoms of a biological disorder.
Children living with mood disorders, like bipolar, are not being lazy or manipulative.
No amount of tough love, being consistent, or natural consequences given
are going to change the physiological and biological cause.
But, this doesn’t mean parents should do nothing in the face of these symptoms. In fact, there are known interventions, counseling techniques, and strategies for discipline, limit setting, and rewards that specifically address mood disorder and bipolar disorder symptoms. All of these focus on targeting symptoms with safety, emotional regulation, and connection as their primary goals. But most traditional parenting classes are geared towards managing emotions and behaviors from neurotypical children who do not have to battle the overwhelming symptoms of a mood disorder every minute of every day.
For example, imagine a child with bipolar disorder who is experiencing a mixed mood episode and is screaming they want to heat up the leftover pizza and they won’t eat the meatloaf baked for dinner. What can a parent or caregiver do? Continuing to say no, ignoring the child, sending them to their room, or trying to reason with them often escalates an already tense situation and exacerbates the mood episode. Holes in the wall, tipped over chairs, broken dishes, screaming, or rolling around on the floor would be a typical response to a parental “no”.
Most parenting classes won’t tell you that, perhaps surprisingly, the healthy response in this situation actually involves the child getting the pizza. But our experts at CMHRC know that regulating the mood as quickly as possible, getting them out of their brain’s limbic system’s fight or flight response, is what is actually most important. Some unhealthy responses that delay regulation and escalate an already intense situation include:
- Imposing consequences,
- Trying to reason with the child,
- Offering a reward for eating the meatloaf, or
- Saying something like “then don’t eat.”
These traditional parenting techniques will only reinforce during an involuntary mood episode that the brain and body must stay on maximum alert and they will not be able to de-escalate.
It is only when the child is regulated that they can be available to make choices and have control over their actions. Until then, they are stuck in an involuntary, survival driven, storm of symptoms they have no control over.
CMHRC’s Palliative Parenting* approach uses compassion and empathy to recognize that meeting the child’s needs is what promotes stability, cooperation, and less chaotic family life.
Well intentioned healthcare providers, teachers, family, and friends encourage and promote unhelpful parenting practices, that while they may work for neurotypical developing children, will not be successful for a child who is physically and emotionally dysregulated. If a child is living with asthma we would learn the steps to keep them healthy and alive. Interventions, strategies, and education that focus on early onset pediatric mood and bipolar disorders are key. Parent support groups*, attended by parents who are also raising children with this specific condition, are an excellent way to learn strategies and approaches to help a child who is constantly dysregulated and what interventions are working for other families. It is also an avenue for further education on what additional appropriate resources are available.
*CMHRC will be launching our Palliative Parenting Class soon. Attend our April 2023 webinar on Palliative Parenting to learn more about this unique approach and the parenting classes that will begin in summer 2023. (register for the webinar now!)
*CMHRC’s parent and caregiver support groups occur twice weekly and are open to all CMHRC family members.