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"I Think I Have Bipolar Disorder, But I'm Afraid to Tell My Parents"

For Teens: Who to Talk to, What to Say


Updated June 20, 2014

One of my readers wrote, "I am very scared I have bipolar disorder. I notice it all the time in my daily life but I am too scared to tell my mom I might have this order. But I want to go to the doctors with her to see if I am diagnosed with it."

The first thing I'd suggest is to make a list of the symptoms, moods and behaviors that make you think you may have bipolar. Also make note of when each one started, as best you can remember. Then take a look at Red Flags: Common Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder to see whether your symptoms do indeed match those that go into a bipolar diagnosis.

Whether they do or they don't, though, you do know you have problems that may need professional help, so keep your list. Add to it examples of as many items as you can. These will be very useful when you talk to others, especially doctors.

I asked other readers what advice they would give to a teen who is afraid to talk to parents about the possibility of having a mental illness. Here are some of their thoughtful responses:

If you have a good relationship with your parent(s):

  • From Carrie: It's possible your mom has seen changes in you that worry her and would be relieved if you were to go to her and say you have some concerns about your moods. My mom was really relieved that there was a reason for my feelings and behaviors.

  • From Naomi: Don't be scared, love. You will feel a hundred times better for getting it off your chest. It sounds like you've diagnosed yourself, and you may be right or it could be something totally different. I love that you want your mum involved. You will need her support. Maybe explain you're not feeling yourself and you'd like to see the doctor with her. If your mum questions, then explain a little more. Keep it simple so you can stay comfortable. I wish you all the best.

  • From Jessica: It's better to swallow that fright, tell your mom and get some help instead of suffering alone, with no meds and no help at all. I've done it both ways and help is the way to go.

  • From Lesley: As hard as it is to tell your parents, you need support and help through this difficult stage. I was diagnosed with bipolar a year ago, and once the diagnosis was confirmed and I was given the correct medication, my family and I could live our lives again.

  • From Jennifer: Does it run in the family? Do you possibly have a yearly physical coming up? If you truly feel you are having problems, you do need to talk to someone. Yes, it is hard to talk to parents sometimes, but this is important to get checked out. I wouldn't start with, "Hey mom/dad, I think I'm bipolar"; instead, start by talking to them about your feelings, that you are not feeling great emotionally or feel you can't control your moods. If you are feeling depressed, mention that. I have always told my kids they could talk to me about anything, and I try to keep an open mind. Remember, most parents will want to know if a child has a problem.

  • From Jen: Please don't wait to talk about it. I waited, and all those years I could have had the help and worked on it then, instead of trying to retrain my brain now and having family accept me for me now.

  • From Alison: My daughter was diagnosed at 4, my son at 8, and my husband at 40. There are advantages to being diagnosed at a younger age. Have you had these symptoms for a long time? Do you remember problems as a young child (way before puberty and hormones)? I encourage you to talk to a school counselor or clergy member, and they can help you talk to your mom. Also, you could tell your mom you're feeling "sad" and would like to talk to a professional without disclosing your fear of bipolar disorder.
If your relationship with your parent(s) isn't so good, or your fear of talking to them is just too great:
  • From Claire: Talk to a counselor or a trusted teacher at school, another family member (aunt, uncle, cousin), or, if you attend a place of worship, a clergy member or counselor there. A trusted adult could act as a go-between or assist you in talking with your parent(s), which you will need to do in order to see doctors.

  • From Shelley: Talk to another trusted, open-minded adult and start from there. The parent(s) will need to get involved so you can see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment, and having another adult to help with talking to parents would be good. If there are no adult friends you feel comfortable reaching out to, perhaps see a school counselor.
To emphasize a few points: I agree with Jennifer - don't start off by saying, "I think I have bipolar disorder." You don't know that - not even if your symptoms match the list of common symptoms. It could be a different mental disorder or even something physical that's affecting your mental health. "I feel like I can't control my moods," "I'm worried because I'm sad so much of the time for no reason," or something similar can open the communications door much more easily.

Also, as Jennifer mentioned, think about whether you have family members who have mental illnesses - not necessarily your parents or siblings, but grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins as well. There's a strong genetic factor in bipolar and other mental disorders, so if you have relatives who have depression, alcoholism, bipolar, etc., you are more likely than the average person to have a mental disorder - but not a guarantee. You may be able to start a conversation by saying, "I'm doing some of the same things Uncle Jerry is doing, and it scares me" or something like that.

Finally, I'll echo what most of the readers said: Don't wait. Whatever may be wrong, you will do more harm than good by holding it in. As Carrie said, your mother could already be concerned about you but perhaps she feels uncomfortable bringing it up.

One more thing you could do: ask your mother to read this article and let it break the ice.

Note: Reader advice has been edited for clarity.

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