Reciprocal Relationships: Parenting Your Adult Child While Meeting Your Needs

Last Updated: 17 Apr 2019

When supporting adult children with bipolar, parents often subsume their own needs—making a relationship in which both sides have their needs met impossible.

You’re supporting an adult child with bipolar. What are your needs?

This is the most important question I ask parents in my coaching practice. Parents are used to talking about what the child with bipolar needs. Rarely do they stop and think about what they need as parents. These needs can get lost and, in some cases, stay lost forever.

My goal is to help parents figure out what they need. Then they can discuss these needs—openly—with their child. At first, this can be very scary.

If I tell my child what I need, this will make my child really sick.

My child is depressed. If I tell her what I need, she might kill herself.

It feels too selfish to tell my child what I need when I can see that he is really suffering.

I know I need to be more assertive, but when I tell my daughter what I need, she tells me I am being selfish!

My son gets really aggressive and in my face if I tell him what I want. I don’t’ want to rock the boat!

It’s hard to address your needs when you feel that asking for what works for you might harm or set off your child. I’m here to say that, in my experience, talking honestly with a child about your needs does not harm the child. Instead, it allows for an open and honest conversation—a conversation that ends the fear and worry which prevented you from telling the truth about the toll bipolar takes on your life.

Not telling the truth about what you need and expect is the perfect recipe for enabling. Enabling happens when a parent puts his or her needs to the side and continues a behavior that doesn’t help an adult child with bipolar get better. Here are a few examples:

Providing a living space for the child without asking for anything in return.

Giving cash to a child with no guidelines on how the money is used.

Paying for a car (including insurance) that gets ticketed and into dangerous situations due to the child’s reckless behavior.

Letting a child take anything and everything even though the child says, “My bipolar disorder is none of your business.”

Creating reciprocal relationships

If you feel your child has hijacked your life and your house, there is a simple way out of this difficult situation: stop behaviors that are not part of a what I call an reciprocal, adult relationship.

A reciprocal, adult relationship is the basis for all healthy relationships. It means that your needs are met while you are meeting the needs of someone else. 

You can do this with kindness and you can do it slowly. Teach yourself to focus on what you need in return for anything you offer to a child. Ultimately, decide that only when a child is able to do what you need, will you give money or shelter to help your child.

No, this doesn’t mean kicking a child out. No, it doesn’t mean a child becomes homeless. It simply teaches an adult child with bipolar disorder that the way to make it in this world is to respect the needs of others when it comes to relationships.

Think of it this way: you would not buy a car without a test drive to make sure that it is safe and undamaged. In the same way that you exchange your money for any other good or service, a similar policy with your child helps create relationships that are equal, loving and stress free.

It is your choice to give your hard-earned money to:

an adult child who is not seeking help.

a child who is using substances that make bipolar disorder worse.

a child who sleeps all day and is up all night. 

Asking for what you need

No one is saying you can’t give money to your child. This is your choice. What I am saying is that your money can be kindly offered with your needs attached. This works much better than just giving money and then getting upset when your needs are not met. Here are some ways to make offers of financial help, while still addressing your needs:

I would love to for you stay with me while you get back on your feet. Here is what I need in return. I like to be in bed by 11 pm, so I ask that you are home and quiet by that time so I can get the sleep I need.

I am not a fan of weed, so I ask that while you are living with me, you don’t use cannabis. If this works for you, I’d love to have you here. If this is not what you’re looking for, I can help you apply for disability and find Section 8 housing. I am here to help either way.

Yes! I can pay for your phone, internet, car, insurance and school fees. To feel good about how I’m using my money, I ask that you see your prescriber once a month and I go every other month for a check-in.  I ask that you sign up for disability services at school and get a weekly therapist who can help you with your schedule. It would be my pleasure to pay for this. If this doesn’t work for you, I will help you look into scholarships and financial aid as well as low-income housing. I am not going anywhere. I am here to help with both scenarios.

Of course you can have money for entertainment. I know how important this is. My need is that we use Julie’s books to make a plan the whole family can use. I will then feel good about using my money for the times you want to go out with friends.

Think of the freedom that comes with tying your money to what you need! It’s not telling others what to do. It’s not telling people that they need to change. It is giving them the choice. They can either respect your needs and rules in order to have an equal exchange of goods and services or they can find another alternative—still with your help, as needed. It becomes a choice for the adult child with bipolar.

You are a grown up. You make the money. When a child becomes an adult, in order to survive in the world, adult, reciprocal relationships are a necessity. Just taking without giving will not work in any situation. By telling a child what you need and holding the child to following these needs, you are teaching the child how to have an adult relationship. This is a positive for everyone. 

About the author
Julie A. Fast is the author of Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder, Get It Done When You’re Depressed, and The Health Cards Treatment System for Bipolar Disorder. She is a columnist and blogger for bp Magazine, and she won the Mental Health America journalism award for the best mental health column in the US. Julie was also the recipient of the Eli Lilly Reintegration Achievement Award for her work in bipolar disorder advocacy. Julie is a bipolar disorder expert for ShareCare, a site created by Dr. Oz and Oprah. Julie is CEU certified and regularly trains health care professionals, including psychiatric residents, social workers, therapists, and general practitioners, on bipolar disorder management skills. She was the original consultant for Claire Danes for the show Homeland and is on the mental health expert registry for People magazine. She works as a coach for parents and partners of people with bipolar disorder. Julie is currently writing a book for children called "Hortensia and the Magical Brain: Poems for Kids with Bipolar, Anxiety, Psychosis, and Depression." You can find more about her work at and
  1. Sadly, I can relate to many of the experiences of the parents who commented here. It is sad and inhumane that there isn’t more real help for our families.. these tragedies can and SHOULD be prevented with timely proper treatment and support ? It is truly a damn shame how our country’s medical system continues to ignore the most vulnerable especially those suffering from the debilitating effects of a serious mental illness.

  2. I have bipolar disorder. So did my adult son. we lived about 120 miles apart. His wife told us last year they were having a wonderful Christmas. My 38-year-old son finally said he was too sick to come for Christmas. There’s much more to the story, but on December 30, 2018, he hanged himself. Time of death was 4 a.m. His wife reported him missing (in the garage) at 11 a.m. I see a psychologist every week and have seen psychiatrists to tweak me meds. Still, I am filled with grief, anger, and blame — the anger and blame directed mostly toward his wife. I’m having trouble coping. At 73, I have trouble accepting my son died before me. I have two older sons and six grandchildren.

    1. I am so sorry for your loss Bill ?

  3. @Afraid- Hi Afraid, I can relate to most of your frustrations and fears… Please do yourself a favor and find a “Alanon” group to attend as soon as possible. It literally saved the little sanity that I had left after my son returned home from college with severe symptoms of schizoaffective disorder. We went through hell together but I set boundaries and we finally found the right medication for him. Has your daughter ever tried “Invega”? Please ask her Doctor if it might work for her. If she likes it she can have an injection once a month instead of taking a pill every day. I am praying for both of you. As Julie mentioned, SELF CARE is most important. You must put your own mask on first. Blessings and kindness to you and your family.

  4. My daughter is 38 years old. She was diagnosed probably 6 years ago. She has three children and is married. Her husband is about at the end with her. I avoid being around her. She has been cruel to me when she is not doing well. She has been manic for at least 6 months. It is taking a toll on the entire family. I feel like I have to walk on egg shells constantly. I’m to the point I don’t want to talk to her, if it weren’t for my grandchildren. I’m just at the end of my rope and I’m not sure what to do next. She sees a psychiatrist. They have tried every imaginable drug there is. She is an alcoholic but thinks it’s ok to have a drink everyday. I am afraid her husband throws her out. I think he’s only doing what he does because of the children also. I need some good advise as a mother.

  5. Thank you for this post. It helped me gain perspective on what my parents might be going through. I live with them and my two teenagers, one of whom is mentally ill. My bipolar is currently well controlled but hasn’t been for long. I pay rent and for food and extras but most importantly my kids and I help with the chores and respect the rules and limits of their household. If my parents were not as clear or firm with boundaries we’d risk losing their critical support. Always be respectful is the rule.

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