How Families Can Support Their Loved Ones Living With Bipolar Disorder

Date Posted

December 22, 2017


A couple hugging on a wooden bridge.

By Dawna Roberts, December 22, 2017

As a caregiver, being around someone who lives with bipolar disorder can be confusing, frustrating, and leave you feeling helpless and hopeless, not knowing where to turn. However, there are things that you can do to make the life of your loved one easier and things that you should try to avoid doing to prevent making matters worse.

We have compiled a list of tips that came from families committed to educating caregivers to promote compassion and understanding for people living with bipolar disorder. These tips are general and extend across a variety of family systems and cultures. We recommend sharing these ideas with your loved one as a way to start or continue a discussion of what support looks like in your relationship with one another.

Things You Can Do That May Be Helpful

The number one thing you can do to support your loved one is to educate yourself about bipolar disorder. Find out as much as you can so you can better understand what they are going through and how to help. Some other things you can do that are incredibly beneficial are to…

Give Hugs — appropriate physical affection shows that you love your person, even if they are exhibiting challenging behaviors or having difficulty returning the emotion. Make sure to respect the person’s boundaries and only use physical affection when you have permission.

Make Time to Talk — being open and honest is very important in a family that is living with bipolar disorder. Two-way communication supports healthy relationships. Make sure that everyone involved in the conversation is ready to talk as well as listen. Be aware of tone and the words you choose. Using “I” statements can help avoid accusations and blame. Instead of saying, “You never clean up after yourself and I’m sick of doing everything!”,try saying something like, “I feel exhausted when I come home after work and have to clean all of the dishes from the day. It would be helpful if you can wash the dishes you use”.

Allow for Space — sometimes when a specific mood hits, it is best to leave your loved one alone and let them have space. They may let you know by expressing that they don’t want or cannot handle any interaction. Try not to take your loved one’s need for space as personal. If your loved one begins to isolate regularly, this may be a sign of depression or feeling unworthy of attention. While it’s important to allow for some time alone, check in if the person is isolating for unusually long periods of time.

Offer Forgiveness — often during particularly stressful times, a person living with bipolar disorder may act out or do things that are hurtful or damaging to others. Understand that they don’t mean to hurt and they don’t want to be behaving negatively. Forgive them and make sure to communicate your complete forgiveness. Genuine forgiveness may also help you from holding on to stress that affects your day to day.

Support a Healthy Lifestyle — research shows that a healthy lifestyle can lessen symptoms and improve their overall quality of life. Help by supporting and promoting a healthy lifestyle with clean eating, exercise, sleep, and mindfulness activities.

Help to Notice Mood Changes — it is often hard for a person living with bipolar disorder to recognize that they are experiencing a different mood. Take note of what you are seeing, is it consistent with onset of prior episodes or is this different? You can help by gently saying what you notice, with some specificity. For example, “I’ve noticed you haven’t slept the last two nights, how are you feeling?” Keep accusations and assumptions out of the conversation.

Consider Financial Support — treatment can be costly. Affording therapy, medications, transportation, and other living expenses can add up quickly. So if you can help your loved one shoulder the burden, it will alleviate some of their stress. Financial support does not have to include sharing your income. Your loved one may need help accessing their insurance or learning how to balance out a payment plan to cover medical expenses.

Practice Self-Care — be sure to take care of you. To support someone else you must be healthy. Take time for your needs and healthy activities, take breaks and indulge in positive events away from the stress of home and work.

Things That Are Often Not Helpful

Making Fun of or Joke — when you are frustrated or irritated it may be tempting to make fun of a mood or behavior or even lighten the mood with a joke but these things can provoke an adverse reaction if your loved one is currently experiencing depression or mania. Pay attention to when your loved one welcomes humor and when humor makes a situation worse.

Being Pushy — sensitivity to others’ comments and perceived meaning is a common symptom of bipolar disorder. If your loved one has made it clear that a particular moment is not a good time to talk, respect this boundary and find another time to connect. Be gentle and ease into difficult conversations.

Too Many Check-Ins or Monitoring — although you may be feeling nervous for the wellbeing of your loved one, too many check-ins or close monitoring can annoy them or incite a stressful mood. Give them the space they need to self-soothe and be there when they need you. It can be helpful to set up an advanced directive when your loved one is doing well, so that in times of distress you know what kind of supports they find helpful. If there is cause for concern for your loved one’s safety, like suicidal feelings or harming self or others, be prepared to act without delay.

Passing Blame —  it can be difficult to separate the disorder from the person but often they are not acting out of choice. Try to be understanding and have compassion rather than being angry and blaming. Do not blame yourself for your loved one’s behavior either.

Making Assumptions — don’t assume you know what is going on inside the head of your loved one. Ask, be open, and honest about your feelings so everyone is on the same page and there won’t be misunderstandings later. While you may think you know what it is best for your loved one, offering choices or asking an open-ended question can set the stage for deeper conversations.

Looking For a Cure — There is no cure for bipolar disorder, only proven treatments and strategies to manage it. If you hold out hope you can find that perfect solution that will “fix” your loved one, you will only be disappointed. While treatment will help your loved one’s mood and quality of life, it is important to accept them as they are and find positive ways to support them.

Venting About Your Stress – people with bipolar disorder may be more attuned to the stress levels of others and, sensing your stress, their own stress levels may be heightened. Be careful when expressing your stress not to sound accusatory. Make sure you have support people in your life that you can vent with.

Ignore or Tip Toe Around — sometimes it feels like you are walking around in a minefield and you don’t want to “set off” your loved one. They might sense your reluctance and believe you are avoiding or ignoring them. A better solution is to talk openly about your feelings in a non-threatening, gentle way.

Take time to reflect on what supports do and do not help you and your loved one. There are so many ways you can provide support, and one great way is to express you love and lend compassion as often as you can.

Additional resources

  • For more stories about managing adult bipolar disorder in the family, watch our Adult Bipolar Disorder Webinar Series.
  • Download a free copy of our Bipolar Disorder Action Plan. This action plan walks you through some of the questions you should answer when trying to solve a problem.
  • Register for our newest new webinar and receive a free brochure with family stories, tips, and resources.