Navigating life with a teenager….who happens to have bipolar disorder

Ask Before You Judge

I have read blogs about ‘things you shouldn’t say to an Autism parent’, ‘things you shouldn’t say to a pregnant woman’ or ‘things you shouldn’t say to someone with anxiety’.   We have to be realistic, people will always say things they ‘shouldn’t say’. People will always judge and try to tell you what you are doing wrong if you are not doing things their way or living a life they understand. Maybe instead of just telling people what they shouldn’t say, we should educate them. These are a few of the comments that have been made to me or my son over the years.  When all of our challenges started, I sometimes believed them.  They made me doubt myself as a parent. So here are my answers to them and to others that may have had the same thoughts.

“It’s just a discipline problem.  If you gave him a good spanking, he would be fine.”- family member

It is not just a discipline problem.  Children with bipolar disorder, and most other neurological disorders, have issues with impulse control. When they have tantrums, in their mind, there is a real reason for it, it is not just about getting what they want. Yes, there are kids that learn to use meltdowns for manipulation… parents, please be cautious.  I am not saying that kids with bipolar don’t need discipline. Of course they do, all kids do.  Without it they do not decipher right from wrong, or our expectations of them in our homes or within society.  I am saying that lack of discipline is not the cause of their illness or behaviors that go along with it.

“He just likes to be in control of situations, this shows a lack of maturity. If you let me hold him back, I’m sure it would fix the problem.”- elementary school teacher

Yes, this was said to me by his 1st grade teacher who didn’t want to put him through to 2nd grade.  At that time, he struggled with reading and writing, but not enough to hold him back. Her only reason for doing so was because of his ‘need to be a leader’ all the time.  My answer to her was “I believe you just described every President of the United States.”. Yes, bipolar kids have controlling personalities, but I don’t think it is that they want to control people, it’s more or less that they pretty much think the world revolves around them.  It is a bipolar trait to be very self-centered.  I am not saying that they are selfish.  It can actually be quite the opposite.  If things are going right in their world, they would probably be the first ones to help you or give you the shirt off their back. If things are going wrong in their world, however, they usually feel that everyone needs to stop regardless of what they are doing and make things better for them.

“Boys will be boys.  This is normal behavior for little boys.”- family member

If people out there think that physical and verbal abuse or destructive behavior is normal in a child, it makes me sad.  It makes me wonder “What type of life did this person have to make them think this is normal?”.  No, it is not normal for a child to tell his parent they want to watch them die.  It is not normal for such violent behavior that you have to create a ‘safe room’ in your house with no breakables or sharp corners. It is not normal that I have to keep spackle on hand for the vast number of holes that end up in the walls of our house or that we had to lock up my son’s archery equipment, because we just couldn’t trust him with it anymore.  I guess in a way, it became true…..because this is now our normal.

“Some people just don’t know how to take care of their kids.” – Doctor’s office staff member

This one wasn’t said directly to me, but about me.  My mom happened to be in the waiting room while I had my son in an exam room.  You could hear his meltdown throughout the office.  My mom immediately stood up, walked over to the window and in an angry voice said “She is here BECAUSE she is taking care of him since clearly there is something wrong.  Do not judge people when you do not know the situation.”.   I’m so glad I have my mom on my side. I am very cautious now when finding doctors.  My first question is, “Do they deal with special needs kids?”.  If the answer is yes, then I know that not only the doctor, but the staff might be just a little more understanding of our situation.

“Saying he has a problem is just an excuse for his bad behavior.” – co-worker

I have come to create a separation in my mind between bad behavior and bipolar behavior.  Generally, my son behaves pretty well.  He has amazing manners when out in public.  He is very charming and personable with people that he meets. Since being in the south he has taken to saying ma’am and sir.  He also has bad behaviors. He can be very disrespectful when asked to do homework or chores. He refuses personal hygiene practices and, when around his friends, I know that he swears…..although he is smart enough to not do this around me.  These are teenage things. They are the headaches that all parents go through when raising a teenage boy who rather be on the computer playing Minecraft than doing just about anything you ask of them.  No, I don’t excuse his bad behaviors, but I do attempt to explain his bipolar behaviors.

“You’re wrong. You can’t just have bad feelings.  Change your mind and you will feel better.” Short-lived therapist

This was said to my son by his first therapist here in GA.  I was sitting outside the office door one day and I overheard his session.  I realized that everything he said during session seemed like hearts and rainbows.  On the way home I asked him why he was pretty much lying to her about everything.  He said, “Mama, I have to lie.  If I tell her the truth she says that I am wrong. “.   I approached her about this and she said that the power of positive thinking was more effective than I realized.  Hey, I know that being positive is powerful….believe me, it takes a lot of positive thinking for me to get out of bed some mornings, but you can’t smile bipolar away.  That’s not how this illness goes. For parents going into this struggle, know that not all therapists are going to be a good fit for your family. Don’t feel bad about moving on.  The most important thing is your child and finding someone who can communicate well with him/her and with you effectively.

“I just don’t want to deal with you.” -middle school teacher

Yes, another teacher comment….but this one was said to my son.  I don’t know if it was meant the way he took it.   She may have been having a bad day and like all adults was frustrated and just ‘didn’t want to deal’. He felt that it meant that she didn’t want to be his teacher and she rather not have him in her class at all because she hated him. Here’s a note to all teachers out there, we tell kids all the time that words can hurt.  Well, for kids with mental illnesses or neurological disorders the perception of words can hurt more than the actual words.  These perceptions can be fueled by the tone of voice or look on someone’s face when they’re said.  If you have a kid come into your class with an IEP, don’t just read it, look at what the diagnosis is and then study up a little on the illness. Find out symptoms, common behaviors and possible triggers. Take some extra time to talk to that child’s parents, they will be a wealth of knowledge on what motivates their child and what shuts them down.  It may not only help the child you are teaching, but it just might give you a greater understanding and compassion for your co-workers that devote their careers to special needs kids.


I know we tell people all the time “Think before you speak” maybe we should also include “Ask before you judge”.  Some people may shoot you down and tell you it’s none of your business, but you also might find a parent that appreciates that you took the time to try to understand and you might just learn something.


Comments on: "Ask Before You Judge" (1)

  1. What a great blog


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