Your Guide to Bipolar Disorder within the Family System

Any kind of mental health diagnosis in the family can be tough to deal with. Suddenly, you’re in uncharted territory with new uncertainties and challenges and with little or no time to prepare. We want to help our loved ones as much as possible but are often unsure if it’s helping or hindering. This is especially true for bipolar disorder, one of the most misunderstood and maligned mental health conditions.

We are here to be your compass in these choppy waters and serve as a source of understanding, guidance, and, above all, hope. In the darkest days, it can seem impossible, but millions of Americans live happy and fulfilling lives while managing their bipolar symptoms. According to the National Advisory Mental Health Council,  bipolar disorder has an amazing 80% treatment success rate.[1] On top of this, more than 80% of people won’t meet the diagnostic criteria within two years, and over 70% will have a near absence of symptoms in the same timeframe.[2]

Bipolar Explained: A Look into its Different Types

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that is surrounded by misinformation and incorrect stereotypes. Understanding exactly what it entails and dispelling myths can help us understand what our family member is going through and learn how to best comfort them when they’re distressed. 

In short, bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme mood swings—emotional highs (mania or the less severe hypomania) to lows (depression). Although it’s possible to be diagnosed with bipolar in childhood, it’s extremely rare, with most cases being diagnosed between ages 15-25.[3]

Before we start looking at the symptoms and subtypes of bipolar, let’s consider what bipolar isn’t:

  • Bipolar disorder is not simply mood swings: Everyone experiences ups and downs, but the mood swings in bipolar disorder are much more severe. People often trivialize this condition, describing capricious people as “a little bipolar,” which is incorrect and harmful.
  • Bipolar disorder is not multiple personality disorder: Although people with bipolar can experience wildly varying emotional states, it’s simply not true that this is caused by different personalities. 
  • Bipolar disorder is not caused by a lack of discipline or willpower: It is a legitimate mental health condition believed to be caused by a combination of genetic, biochemical, and environmental factors.

Bipolar disorder has two main subtypes: bipolar 1 and bipolar 2 disorder. Bipolar 1 means that the person has had at least one manic episode preceded or followed by a hypomanic or major depressive episode. In extreme cases, the manic part can trigger a break from reality, a condition known as psychosis. 

People with bipolar 2 won’t experience a full-blown manic episode but will have had a depressive and hypomanic episode where their symptoms will be fairly obvious to outside observers. If you want a more detailed explanation of the different symptoms and subtypes of bipolar disorder, read one of our earlier blogs here.

How Bipolar Impacts the Family

Even before anyone receives a formal diagnosis, having a young adult with bipolar can affect your family dynamic. Unpredictable highs and uncontrollable lows can create an environment where it’s hard to communicate on a consistent level, which impacts everyone. Often, a formal diagnosis of bipolar disorder is welcomed as it explains the behavior and is the first step towards achieving recovery. 

A bipolar diagnosis in the family can often mean we’re quickly forced to assume unfamiliar roles, shoulder even greater responsibility, and have our routine disrupted.[4] Although we can often feel powerless, we need to remember that, as authority figures, we can be an anchor of support. The more we educate ourselves about what we can expect, the more our own emotional  burden is reduced, with studies showing this is directly proportional to positive treatment outcomes.[5]

The effects of bipolar depend greatly on the severity of the symptoms and how well they’re managed. Milder mood swings can be relatively easy to deal with, but more severe symptoms can be incredibly stressful, particularly in families that also have young children. Often, not knowing what to expect is the most nerve-wracking thing about having a bipolar relative.  Below is a list of common challenges and some management strategies to help you and your family feel more prepared:

ChallengesManagement Strategies
Emotional distress, including guilt, grief, and worrySeek professional help, join a support group, and practice self-care
Disruption of regular routinesEstablish a regular schedule, and build flexibility into routines
Periods of unusual or potentially dangerous behaviorDevelop a crisis plan with healthcare professionals, and keep emergency contact numbers easily accessible
Financial pressures due to diminished income or excessive spendingConsult with a financial advisor, and consider setting up a special needs trust or other financial planning options
Strained marital or family relationshipsEngage in family therapy, and practice open and honest communication
Shifts in family rolesShare responsibilities among family members, and encourage open discussions about feelings related to changes in roles
Challenges in maintaining relationships outside the familyEducate close friends about bipolar disorder, and encourage your loved one to participate in social activities when they feel up to it
Health issues resulting from stressEncourage regular medical check-ups for all family members, prioritize self-care and relaxation, and consider stress management techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, and yoga

Managing the Highs and Lows: A Family-Centered Approach

Supporting a young adult through the highs and lows of bipolar disorder is a delicate task due to the symptoms’ complexity and unpredictability. While it’s impossible to totally forecast the next manic or depressive episode, we can be aware of the various triggers that could set one off and aid in creating a supportive and stable environment. By actively participating in our loved one’s treatment plan and fostering open communication, we not only make them feel better but also improve their chances of successful recovery. Below are a few more tips you can use to achieve this:

  • Promote consistent sleep routines: Encourage your loved one to follow regular sleep schedules and to practice calming bedtime rituals to aid quality sleep.
  • Moderate celebrations: Learn to balance excitement around positive events. Too much exhilaration can trigger a manic episode. Celebrate successes while keeping an emotional balance.
  • Support a substance-free lifestyle: Advocate for a substance-free environment. If your loved one struggles with substance use, let them know they can receive help free from judgment.
  • Provide support during major life changes: Offer increased support during significant life events like the death of a loved one, which can trigger episodes.
  • Practice family-wide stress management: Adopt stress management practices such as mindfulness, meditation, or regular physical activity. This not only helps your loved one but also enhances overall family well-being.
  • Ensure consistent medication adherence: Help your loved one with consistent medication management, always under the guidance of healthcare professionals.

Caring for the Caregiver

It’s all too easy to neglect the one person it’s essential to take care of: yourself. Although it can feel selfish to think about oneself when your young adult is suffering, remember, your well-being is integral to their journey to wellness. You can’t pour from an empty cup, and self-care helps you replenish your energy source! Here are some easy and affordable self-care strategies you can try:

  • Practice mindfulness: Engage in practices like meditation, yoga, or simply taking quiet moments throughout your day to breathe and center yourself.
  • Stay active: Regular exercise can help manage stress and promote a sense of well-being. Choose an activity you enjoy and make it a consistent part of your routine.
  • Eat healthily: Nutrient-rich food fuels your body and mind, making you better equipped to handle stress.
  • Make sure you rest: Prioritize quality sleep, and make time for relaxation during your day.
  • Maintain a support network: Keep good connections with friends and family and don’t hesitate to share your feelings with them. Joining a support group can also be beneficial, as meeting others who are in a similar situation can provide understanding and practical advice.
  • Seek professional help: Consider therapy for your own emotional well-being. It’s okay to ask for help.
  • Set boundaries: Learn to say no when overwhelmed, and be sure to manage your time effectively.

Remember, self-care isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Find what works best for you, and don’t be afraid to adjust as needed. You deserve to be looked after too!

Get the Help You Deserve

Navigating mental health conditions can be challenging, but you don’t have to do it alone. We believe in treating the entire family, not just the individual. Our Family Intensive Program addresses the familial dynamics impacted by bipolar disorder and helps everyone involved learn, heal, and grow. 

We provide psychoeducation and therapy to identify problem areas, develop healthy boundaries, improve communication, and foster healthy conflict resolution. We can provide help and guidance moving forward to help your family access the recovery services needed for real, lasting change.

For more information on how we can help with bipolar disorder, get in touch – call 800-335-0316 or email today.


  1. “Bipolar Disorder (Manic-Depressive Illness) – Mental Illness Policy Org.” Mentalillnesspolicy.Org, Accessed 1 Aug. 2023.
  2. Sandy. “Recovery.” NeuRA Library, 1 Nov. 2021,
  3. Baldessarini, Ross J et al. “Age at onset versus family history and clinical outcomes in 1,665 international bipolar-I disorder patients.” World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) vol. 11,1 (2012): 40-6. doi:10.1016/j.wpsyc.2012.01.006
  4. Jönsson, Patrik Dahlqvist, et al. “Experience of Living with a Family Member with Bipolar Disorder.” International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, vol. 20, no. 1, 2011, pp. 29–37,
  5. Perlick, Deborah A., et al. “Impact of Family Burden and Affective Response on Clinical Outcome among Patients with Bipolar Disorder.” Psychiatric Services, vol. 55, no. 9, 2004, pp. 1029–1035,
Sign up for our newsletter

At your side whenever you need us.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to one of our team here at Heather R Hayes & Associates. We are just one phone call away. 

Heather Hayes & Associates is your trusted ally for navigating the complex world of treatment and recovery options for substance abuse, mental health issues, and process addictions.

Contact Us
Media Inquiries

Heather R. Hayes & Associates, Inc, offers experienced, trained professionals with clinical oversight, providing discreet and compassionate services in any situation.
Heather R. Hayes & Associates, Inc. is committed to providing the highest level of care without compromise, and we are not employed by, nor do we receive any form of payment or compensation from, the providers with whom we consult for placement or referrals.

Contact Us