Bipolar Disorder (BD) is a mood disorder, a mental illness experienced by teens, adults, and even children. It’s considered to be a mood disorder because someone with this diagnosis experiences disturbances in mood, ranging from the highest of highs (mania) to the lowest of lows (depression). You might also know this disorder as “manic depressive”, which is an older term for the same diagnosis.
Euphoria, elation, racing thoughts, irritability, and substance use are common symptoms of mania. Some individuals with BD might also engage in forms of self-harm, such as cutting or risky behavior as a way to take away their emotional pain and accelerate the highs. When feeling low or depressed, the symptoms of depression include decreased energy, insomnia, fatigue, agitation, and suicidal thoughts. Considerable attention has been focused on the heightened risk of suicide, substance abuse, relationship conflicts, hypersexual activity, and aggressive behavior that often accompanies this mental illness.
Research has shown that typically children whose parents are bipolar are more at risk for also developing the disease. Yet, the psychological implications of having bipolar parents haven’t been thoroughly studied. Yet, one research investigation from Concordia University shows that children of parents with BD are more susceptible to psychosocial problems, most notably risky sexual behavior and may need teen bipolar disorder treatment even though they themselves do not have the disorder.
The study followed the lives of children with BD and children from families without mental illness from the ages of 4 to 12 until they reached early adulthood. The research assessed those children for suicidal behavior, self-harm, smoking, delinquent or criminal behavior, and risky sexual behavior. Sexual activity before the age of 16, unprotected sex, and abortions were considered to be risky sexual behavior.
Comparing the two groups of students they assessed, researchers found the largest difference in behavior when it came to sexual activity, and this was true for both genders. Typically, manic behavior might include increased sexual activity, grandiose thinking, over spending, high levels of energy, and reduced amounts of sleep. However, risky sexual behavior, along with delinquency and aggression, is considered to be externalizing behaviors. And these behaviors are typical for those diagnosed with BD. In this study, however, teens who did not possess a diagnosis but were the children of those who did were also exhibiting externalizing behaviors, namely sexual activity.
This research also indicates that teens whose parents have BD are vulnerable to a range of psychiatric and psychosocial problems. With the developmental changes that teens are undergoing already and the instability of their growing minds, the mood swings seen in their parents can play a role in a teen’s psychological development. For this reason, the display of externalizing behaviors for teens of bipolar parents makes sense. Children and teens require stability and structure, and this may be a way of reacting to the lack of structure that might exist at home.
The ultimate goal, said researchers, is to reduce the levels of stress in the family which can then reduce negative outcomes for children. For instance, those with BD can frequently become overwhelmed with stimulation that might be normal for others. Overstimulation puts that person at risk for a manic episode. This sense of overwhelm for parents can often also be felt by their children, adding to a feeling of not having the structure they need. The lack of safety that children experience as a result can prompt them to react in certain ways, including with externalizing behavior.
New programs are being developed which are aimed at the children and teens of those with bipolar disorder so that they can have the psychological structure and support they need.
Nauert, R. (2014). Kids of Bipolar Parents May Display Risky Sexual Behavior. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 14, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/06/11/kids-of-bipolar-parents-may-display-risky-sexual-behavior/71114.html