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

When your child is screaming, crying, hitting or flailing about, what is your emotional reaction?  Can you tell the difference between a tantrum, meltdown or manic episode? I am going to let you in on a little trick that took me years to figure out…..and is still hard to follow through on.

First, let me help you decipher between the three…..but let me remind you, I am not a professional behavior specialist, just a parent who has lived and learned a lot over the past 16 years.  These descriptions are from my personal experience.

Veruca Salt

Tantrum – (Behavioral): This is a full on Veruca Salt type of situation.  A tantrum usually occurs when a child is attempting to gain control of a situation when they want or are in need of something.  This could be attention, a physical item (toy, treat), sleep, food…etc. Usually a tantrum is a child’s way of requesting something that we, as adults, can articulate for ourselves.  The truth is, their brain does not yet have the ability to reason or be rational.  From a young age they know that their parents will react when they cry and they learn to use that to their advantage.

Meltdown – (Neurological Disorder): This is when a child’s brain is overloaded, either with sensory information or emotion.  Meltdowns are highly common for children with Sensory Processing Disorder or are on the Autism Spectrum.  Neurologically, their brain simply does not process or filter information the way an average brain does.  During a meltdown, they are simply letting out all of the frustrations that have built up over a specified period of time.  More often than not, a meltdown will happen with a person they trust and will feel safe with.

Manic Episode – (Mental Health Disorder) : This an outburst, sometime verbal or violent, that accompanies a mental illness.  It usually surfaces as extremely high amounts of energy accompanied by a break from reality.  A manic episode can go along with one of my favorite sayings ‘Perceiving is Believing’. There is no challenging what they believe to be true during a manic episode.  In the midst of this type of episode, the child sometimes makes statements that don’t make sense, act impulsively or may be physically violent. A milder version of a manic episode will sometimes include hyper-focus on one topic, fast speech and movement(bouncing, rocking, pacing…etc) or an overwhelming need to hold your undivided attention.

Regardless of which type of episode your child is having, tantrum, meltdown or manic, there is one trick that I have found to help my emotions in the middle of it.

As a parent, our first reaction is usually to make our child stop any type of behavior we see as upsetting….either to the child, to other members of the family or to ourselves.  It causes us anxiety or frustration to see our child flopping on the floor, punching their pillow or screaming at us.  What I have learned is that a big part of how your child approaches these situations lies in how you react to them.

My trick?  It’s actually really simple…..ask yourself, am I looking at The What or The Why?????  Are you only looking at what your child is doing or trying to figure out why they are doing it?

Most of us look at The What.  How can you not?  Your child just had a meltdown and flung a book across the room, barely missing his sister.  The first thing we are inclined to do is say ‘We don’t throw books….apologize to your sister… go to your room until you’ve learned your lesson’.  Do you think they are learning anything??? Have you learned anything???

When we try to find out why your child threw the book you start learning what their triggers are and you can teach them coping skills on how to deal with those feelings when they come up.

I know, it sounds too easy to be true….but the truth is, it’s not easy at all.  It’s about reconditioning our brains in how we approach handling our children’s behavior and how we discipline them for that behavior.  I am in no way saying discipline is not important, your child still needs to understand there are consequences to their actions……..but in the middle of this behavior, when they are not being reasonable, is not the time to do it.  Wait for them to calm down, figure out the cause and then work on solutions to help them take responsibility.

Believe me, I still feel the urge to just scream the worst punishment I can think of at the top of my lungs when my son is behaving in a way I simply don’t understand.  The truth is I slip up quite a bit, but years ago, when I started approaching my child’s meltdowns and manic episodes by using this little trick and teaching him coping skills for his triggers, the episodes went from four or five times a week to once a month….and that was when he was 8 years old.  Now that he is 16, they are even fewer.  Using this approach for the past 8 years has helped him talk through his feelings and frustrations.  He has become great at articulating what is going on inside his head and has learned to be a wonderful advocate for himself.  Using this approach actually made our relationship even stronger and has also lead to a deep trust between us.

So I challenge you to try it…….Figure out The Why instead of just seeing The What.  It just may change your day-to-day.


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