Dear Dr. Meg,
I am a mom to two bipolar teenagers. My daughter is 14 going on 21 with a huge attitude problem. My son is 16 and believes the world owes him everything. They are ruining my marriage, making me physically sick and constantly at battle with me over everything I ask them to do. Can you offer me any advice?
Mom Of Two Teens
Yes. First, let’s talk about bipolar disorder. You say that both of your teens have it. My first question to you is: are you sure that the diagnosis is correct? Bipolar disorder can be very tricky to diagnose in teens so the first order of business for you, is to make sure that an adolescent psychiatrist, not an adult psychiatrist, has evaluated them both. Having bipolar disorder is serious and must be managed very carefully.
The second question I have for you is: if their diagnosis is correct, what have your doctors suggested for you regarding parenting them? Children with bipolar disorder are hard to parent because they have enormous mood swings and they become agitated and angry without warning. They can experience periods where they can’t sleep and can become obsessively involved with something such as: shopping, being with friends, or partying, you name it. Without warning, they may become depressed. All of these components can be part of other non-bipolar issues and that is why an accurate diagnosis is so important.
Let’s talk practicality. Regardless of their diagnosis, their disease is no excuse for bad behavior, period. They may be managed with medications and these can really help (again you need a good psychiatrist) but your children also need some firm boundaries for their own sanity, as well as yours. When children are given a diagnosis, parents (and this children themselves) tend to blame bad behavior on their illness. This doesn’t help anyone, least of all them, because no matter what they need to learn to function in the world. They need to finish school, work at a job, be kind to others, get along with friends and family, etc.
If these were my children, this is what I would do.
1. Get a copy of The Strong –Willed Child by Dr. James Dobson and read it twice. This is a “golden oldie” and no matter what issues you have with teens, it will help.
2. Pick two of the worst things that your teens do and wage war against them. Let’s say your daughter talks back and you want her to stop. You name the beast (backtalk) and sit your daughter down when you are not mad. Then you let her know that you are going to help her change the bad habit because it will ruin her life. Tell her from this point on, you are at war with her bad habit and she should be too. Inform her that if she does it again, her phone, iPad, or whatever, will be taken away for one whole week. If she does it again, another week is added. Be firm because this is war and throw the thing away if you must. Do the same with your son.
3. They need jobs. When your children are not in school they should be bagging groceries, mowing lawns or stocking food on shelves, anything. You say that your son feels the world owes him everything and this is the quickest way to change that. If he refuses and throws a temper tantrum, start taking things away. Start with the items he likes the most (his phone, computer, video games, etc.) and work from that point. If he is left with only a mattress in his room, oh well, that’s his choice. Your daughter isn’t too young either; she can babysit or find other jobs. There is NO reason you should be providing all of the extra stuff that they have (phones, laptops, clothes, etc.).
4. Stop yelling. In your frustration you probably yell and this makes you appear weak and out of control to your kids, so stop it. Claim the power that you have as their mother (you own everything they have) and use this, not yelling. If they thrash, scream, slam doors or whatever when you lay down the law, stay calm. If you need to leave the house for a short while to calm down, do so.
5. Don’t discipline too many things at once. Most parents cave because they try to change all of their teen’s bad behaviors at once. Don’t do this, but pick one or two at a time and win those battles before you move on to others.
6. Recruit a positive male influence. You didn’t say where their father is, but I’m assuming that you are on your own here? Find a grandfather, uncle or family friend to help you out. Introduce your children to him and ask if he would spend time with them. Your son especially needs male influence. In fact, not having a father in itself, often causes boys to get out of control when they are teens. Your son needs to spend time with a coach or some man whom he respects in order to see what men behave like. Stepfathers are in a tricky spot here so if your husband is a stepdad, he can be a great influence but in your son’s mind he isn’t his father so he must act more like a coach than a dad. If your son’s biological father will step up to the plate that is best.
7. Get support for yourself. You cannot do this alone. You must find a girlfriend or someone who you can talk to every week to give you support. You will get through this! You are at one of the toughest points right now because of the age of your teenagers, so now you need to hang on. Your teens aren’t full adults until they are twenty-five, so you have a little ways to go. You need support so that you can keep your wits about you and your temper under wraps.
8. Find a good parenting group. Most towns have parent support groups for parents with children with ADHD, depression, drug or alcohol abuse, you name it. Even if there isn’t one for children with bipolar disorder, much of the principles that these other parents deal with are the same as yours; their children are out of control. Being with them will give you the strength you need to become tougher.
You can do this. Take each day at a time. You are the parent. You are the grown up who holds all the cards. The children do not. They would not have anything without you, so claim that authority. There is no room in your life (or theirs) for a wimpy mom, which you are not.