Parenting an Adult Child With Bipolar Means Learning To Step Back

Last Updated: 24 Feb 2019

As a parent, every day is a lesson to do better, be a better listener, and learning to step back while still being a cheerleader.


My son has been in treatment for about six months. Knowing he is safe has been a blessing. I am so thankful I can sleep at night again.

Recently we were chatting on the phone and I realized that because of his maturity level being regressed I tend to treat him younger than he is. I also tend to placate him because he can be repetitive sometimes. The reality is I often hear what he is saying but I am not actually listening. The irony is I actually teach active listening as part of the CIT module and yet I don’t take my own advice.

As parents, we tend to get caught up in the diagnosis. We blame everything on the bipolar disorder. We sometimes forget that our children’s feelings need validation even if they seem obscure. I often say my son has a false sense of reality and although this may be true I tend to forget that his perception is just that, and who I am to judge?

If you ask my son about his childhood when he isn’t stable, he will tell you how awful it was. He will tell you he had no friends growing up, no one liked him and that I worked all the time and never spent time with him. This is partially true. The reality is we always had kids at the house and everyone in the neighborhood loved him for his charming personality, but I did work a lot.

Being a single parent I didn’t really have a choice. I really tried to be an active parent. I took him to water parks, to BMX events, sports practice, the circus, family parties, and the list goes on. I feel that given the circumstances he really had a great childhood, and when I wasn’t available his grandparents stepped in all the time. However maybe what he was really trying to tell me was that I didn’t take enough time out of my day to spend with him talking. To ask him how he was feeling. To really sit with him and listen. Truthfully the only time he wanted to talk was when I was going to sleep. We were on opposite schedules as he got older. I can’t fix what I didn’t know but I can try to make tomorrow better. I need to work on validating those feelings even if I don’t always agree with them.

When he started his downward spiral I was caught up in my own anger. I was angry that this diagnosis caused him to say and do some really mean things to me. I was angry that his actions had almost cost me my career, my relationships, and my house. I was angry he was bleeding me dry, physically, emotionally, and financially. I felt like I was drowning in quicksand and I could no longer listen or hear anything. Sadly, looking back, this was probably the time he needed me the most, but I just didn’t have the strength to be a good parent. Or at least the parent he wanted me to be.

I have learned to take a step back. Now that he is back on the road to recovery I knew he needed me to be his support system. I can’t continue to be a helicopter mom. As much as my heart wants to step in and take over every piece of his recovery I know I must let him do it on his own. Although I still think he needs to work on taking ownership and apologize for his actions, I will sit back and wait. I will be his #1 cheerleader for now.

Maybe one day we will have an honest conversation about everything, but I think that will take some time. Instead, I am going to be patient and try to become a better listener so we can heal our relationship because when we know better we do better. Every day is a lesson and I am forever learning.


Read more:
10 Ways to Remain Positive as a Mental Health Caregiver


About the author
Julie Joyce is a Chicago Police Officer and the mother of an adult son who suffers from bipolar disorder and ADHD. Over the years Julie has been a strong advocate and volunteer with National Alliance for Mental Illness, The Balanced Mind Foundation, and has assisted with the creation and implementation of the Advanced Juvenile Crisis Intervention training (CIT) for Chicago Police officers. She is certified by the Federal Bureau of Investigation Hostage Negotiation Team as a Crisis Negotiator, has conducted presentations on mental illness for Attorney General Lisa Madigan's Office and has had the opportunity to speak to legislatures on the need for special education funding. Julie has also conducted educational presentations for DCFS on interventions for kids with mental illness. Along with her son, she was interviewed on NPR, WBEZ, for the “Out of the Shadows” series which focused on juveniles and mental illness. Currently, Julie spends her time raising awareness and advocating for people living with mental illness.
  1. I am a mother of a son that has Bipolar 1. He is 34 now and I have been battling this with him since he was 15. I have lost count of how many hospitalizations maybe 9 or 10 now. He just got out of the hospital yesterday he has been manic. He was brought in by the police for screaming at parents at a school. I am tired and exhausted. My son has been o his own now in his own apartment and on disability for 4 years now. He has had many side effects from the medication but side effects are better than acting crazy and getting taken into the ER from the police. This has happened like four times now and the rapid cycling has been going on for like 2 years.

    Anyway we move forward. If I did not have my faith in God I would have went crazy years ago. The worrying and the sleepless, restless nights of worrying if your child is hungry, cold and in trouble has taken it toll. I am not letting it control my life anymore. I do not want to be that helicopter parent anymore. He has to take responsibility and I have to let go.

    I have been his only support. He does not allow his extended family to be a part of his life and his dad lives in Iowa. We have been divorced since 2004 and he has helped at times but is remarried and has his life there. I have the brunt of the parenting job. Anyway reading these comments helped. Their are many parents out there suffering like us but we do feel alone. The comments and advice from family members to deal with and the strangers to deal with at times with the embarrassment of the things our mentally ill kids do. I could go on and on but I want to encourage you parents to seek support if not from a family member than from friends and a therapist if needed.

    It is very hard not to want to fix everything or at least make it better. Being able to step back at times can seem impossible but I feel it is time for me to start stepping back. I have so many blessings. The fact that he is still alive, still no criminal record, no horrible consequences to deal with at the moment.

    I have a daughter that is married and I have a three year old adorable granddaughter! Plus my daughter maybe pregnant as I write this! So I will continue on and do the best that I can. I will continue to pray to God for strength and protection which he has never let me down and has always taken care of me.

    Keep the faith and Thank you for this wonderful article! Brenda

  2. Thank you.

  3. As I read this article and the comments I could totally relate! My daughter is 17 and we diagnosed BP II when she was 10; she started BP behavior as a toddler. We are self employed which has been a blessing because it gives me the flexibility required to help her. However, I am really trying to figure out how to “let go” and guide her to make her own responsible decisions and trust we are doing the right thing. She just went through a manic phase and I learned last night there may be undesirable photos of her out on the ether and my heart was broken for all of us. I do struggle with being an adequate parent and not being a helicopter parent. Our goal for her has always been to educate her and us about what is BP II and how do we deal with the fallout of each episode. I will admit I do get very tired of constantly being “on guard” and “justifying her existence to “outsiders””. Dealing with constantly being judged and talked about in our small community is daunting and exhausting, but most of all ISOLATING!!!!! Thanks to all who share their thoughts and experiences.

  4. Thank you for this article. Your story is very much like my story, which brings me comfort in knowing I’m not alone as a parent. Somehow I feel stronger and more capable in reading this.

  5. Wow! This is what I needed to read. It’s hard for me to find parents with bipolar who also have a child with bipolar. He’s an adult, and I’m walking that fine line between needed support and letting him be responsible.

    His illness impacts mine, and it’s been a grueling past six months.

    I believe we’ll emerge better and closer for this, though.

Load More Comments

Leave a Reply

Please do not use your full name, as it will be displayed. Your email address will not be published.