Disciplining Children with Bipolar Disorder

Disciplining Children with Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is a condition that affects the brain areas that regulate impulse control, emotions, speech, thought, planning, and memory.  Children with bipolar disorder are extremely influenced by their impulses and surroundings.   This situation makes it difficult for them to behave appropriately at times, even if they are being regulated with medication.   Parenting a child with bipolar disorder can be challenging, but there are ways to help a bipolar child manage their behaviors.

Preventive Measures

Though some things might seem obvious or like common sense to an outsider, when coping with acting-out behavior, it is not always easy to see what can be done.  There are several strategies that can be helpful in managing the behaviors of children with bipolar disorder.  The first thing parents can do is to be proactive in managing their children’s behavior.  

One such measure is to ensure a consistent schedule.  This step involves making sure the child sticks to a routine regarding medication (if on a regime), sleep, home activities, and outside activities.  Keeping to routines help to reduce stress and help to manage impulsivity and risky behaviors.  Routines also help parents be more aware of changes in mood and behaviors that may indicate a swing or acting-out behaviors.

Awareness and avoidance of triggers helps manage the bipolar child’s behavior. When early signs are recognized, parents can move in quickly to help children through difficult situations.   Warning signs of an approaching manic episode may include extreme irritability or silliness, intense outbursts, high energy level maintained for long periods of time, reduction in the need for sleep, hyper-vigilance to a task, racing thoughts, reckless behavior, or symptoms of a psychosis such as paranoia. 

Discipline Strategies

There are times when no amount of preparation can curtail a child’s acting-out behavior.  When those moments arise, parents need some tools to manage their children’s behaviors.  Several strategies can be used to help address these behaviors.

Pick your battles:  It’s a common phrase, but choosing what to enforce and what to ignore can be helpful when dealing with behaviors of a child with bipolar disorder.  Everything the child does incorrectly doesn’t need to be addressed.  Constant reprimanding results in a child who simply stops hearing and, for children with bipolar disorder in particular, can increase the stress and trigger more acting-out behaviors.

Consistency:   When parents decide which behaviors to reinforce or discourage, they need to be consistent in the reinforcement or discouragement of those behaviors.  All children test limits; children with bipolar disorder are no different in this area.  For these children, it is even more imperative parents adhere to consistency.   Children with bipolar disorder often have a need for control.   Consistency helps them understand and integrate a sense of control.

Balance praise and negative comments:  Children need to hear positive comments from their parents.  Always focusing on the negative does little to help self-worth grow and mature. Placing more focus on positive actions gives more power to those actions.   Using a reward system can be helpful in this area.  Many parents are resistant to this strategy, believing it to be “bribing” their children.   Properly using a reward system can work wonders for children with bipolar disorder.  Rewards are given for positive behavior. Negative behavior is not rewarded, nor are earned rewards taken away.  Start with easily achieved goals and proceed from there.  The goal is not to reward every single positive behavior, but to get the child to eventually accept things such as hugs or praise as adequate rewards for positive behavior. 

Natural and logical consequences:  Children with bipolar disorder tend to have a more intense sense of fairness than other children.  While they may not totally accept a discipline measure entirely, if it is fair in their minds, it has a better chance of working.  Logical consequences are important to implement control over negative behavior.   Natural consequences are what would happen on its own without parental direction.  If the child is not in danger, it is often a wise choice to let nature take its course and allow the child to learn.  The caveat is not to put the child’s safety at risk.   Logical consequences are directed by the parents, though may have some overlap with natural consequences.  The consequence is related to the action. The importance here is to be consistent.  The child should know the rules and the possible consequences.  Consider discipline that “fits the crime” instead of punishment.

Using these strategies may be difficult for many people, but if used consistently can help manage the behavior of the child with bipolar disorder.  It is important for parents to check their own emotions; they may need a time-out for themselves.   Always discipline in a calm frame of mind, gather a support network to help when needed, and remember discipline is teaching while punishment is intimidation.

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Written by: Cheryl Weldon, MA See other articles by Cheryl Weldon, MA
About the Author:

Cheryl Weldon, MA is a retired Marriage, Family Therapist. Visit her website www.cawworldwide.com for more writings.

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