I have a daughter with bipolar disorder who is ruining my life with her disrespect and her antics. I bring her to therapy and she’s on medication, but it doesn’t seem to be helping. I am honestly counting the days until she turns 18, so I can tell her to GTFO. Sometimes I look at her, and think how much I love her, but then she does something horrible, and I am back to not being able to stand her. I am really at the point where I wish I never had her. Help!
Dear Parent who can’t wait to say GTFO,
Let me start by saying that you are very brave to openly express what many parents of challenging children feel, but are afraid to admit. I have to acknowledge, for the benefit of any readers who have not walked in your shoes, I myself was momentarily taken-aback at the profound disgust you appear to have for your child… But when I imagined the challenge of parenting a child who disrespects, rages, and defies, I empathized with your position. I can see how you might long for the pain and stress to end, and even fantasize about going back to the time before you had your child.
So, this is a handy dandy venn-diagram that I often whip out during couples therapy. I am adding it to this post to demonstrate my need to genuinely empathize with this parent before offering any insight.
So, Parent WCTSGTFO, while you did not mention the exact nature of the antics in which your child participates, I am filling in the blanks with my vivid imagination, and also adding the possibility of an undiagnosed oppositional defiant disorder lurking in the background (just bipolar disorder rarely stirs up this much parental disgust.). I am picturing a back-talking child who openly resists your authority, sneaks out of the house when grounded, often shouts “noooo” in your face when you set limits, dabbles in drinking, drugs, or other reckless behavior, and has angry meltdowns that wake the neighborhood and put holes in walls. If the list extends to setting fire to the cat and shoving brother’s hand down the garbage disposal, then we’re talking more conduct disorder and/or antisocial personality features, in which case, your child’s therapist may discuss residential or intensive treatment/keep-her-out-of-jail options.
I am going to focus the majority of this post on your well-being, however, with only a small portion dedicated to the managing of your daughter in as much as doing-so benefits you. You seem like you’re at your wits end.
First, get your own therapist. Did you really think this wouldn’t be the first thing I said? I have had a few parent-child duos that schedule their appointments at the same time, with their respective therapists in the same office, which is a time-saving strategy I highly suggest. And of course, you would also benefit from a third therapist who would provide family therapy to help with communication, limits, and trouble-shooting barriers to connection and compliance.
Therapy will help you with the grieving process. Yes, you read that right. You are tasked with grieving a profound loss, the loss of the closer-to-idyllic parenthood experience you imagined. The sooner you let go of the possibility that your experience with parenthood could be any other way other than what it is (and your child could be anyone other than who she is), the sooner you spare yourself a lot of anger and turmoil. Right now, it appears that all of your anger at this unfairness (unfairness for you and unfairness for your child who experiences a hell of her own with a roller coaster of uncontrollable internal experiences), seems to be channeled onto your child.
Your irritation and anger toward your child, combined with your apparent desperation and hopelessness, may in fact be a form of depression. People don’t often think of irritability as being associated with a mood disorder, but it very much is. Your therapist can help provide you with further diagnostic insight, and refer you to a psychiatrist if medication is indicated. Cognitive behavioral therapy will help you to resist unhelpful thought processes (such as the catastrophic conclusion that disobedience and extra care is “ruining” your life.) and abandon any “shoulds” you have about parenting or your child. Also, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy concepts of mindfulness, distress tolerance, and radical acceptance may help you manage your feelings more effectively, and accept your child’s limitations without personalizing or experiencing disgust. Finally, support groups for parents of special needs or behaviorally-challenged children are immensely helpful when it comes to offering support.
Therapy can also help you understand and empathize with what your daughter is going through internally. Yes, you read that right. I know that is the last thing you want to hear in your frenzy of anger right now, but guess what? Parents that come from a place of empathy, end up cultivating more prosocial behaviors in their children. Basically, if you want your child to care about how others feel about her behaviors, you need to model a whole lot of caring about how others feel about your behaviors.
…Which leads me to my next point. You and your co-parent partner would clearly benefit from gaining some practical skills for handling your child’s especially difficult behaviors. Your therapist and/or a specialized seminar/conference could provide such valuable training. There is no single “manual” for parenting, but in my experience working with challenging children, these are important guidelines to remember:
1) Be an example of the behavior that you want your child to have (listen, remain composed, refrain from disrespecting others.)
2) Have clearly-expressed and realistic expectations, and whenever possible, use natural consequences.
3) Make a big deal out of it when your child does what you want her to do (praise, rewards, whatever.)
4) Don’t give second chances, and don’t lecture or explain yourself (let the consequence do the teaching)
5) Provide empathy often, especially when you’re angry, and especially when you are providing consequences.
For parenting challenging kids, I also like energy drain, broken record, and other techniques described in Parenting with Love and Logic.
When issuing consequences,
I suggest this: Bummer. You lied about turnng in your math assignment. Now you’ll have to miss Martial Arts to sit here and finish your Algebra. That’s too bad, because I know how much you were looking forward to getting your new belt tonight.
Not this: Are you freaking serious!? That’s the third lie this week! What is wrong with you!? You’re grounded for two weeks! I don’t even want to talk to you. Just go to your room right now.
All of these skills are helpful guidelines for any parent, but are especially important for parents of children who test boundaries or easily let their emotions/impulsivity cloud their judgment.
Moving on to other important points: It is incredibly difficult to co-parent any child, let alone navigate all the stresses and sources of contention when co-parenting a child with special needs. Your child’s difficulties are likely taxing your marriage (or relationship if you are not married), which is likely another source of the anger you have directed toward your child (“She even ruined my marriage!” might be something you tell yourself). And an unsatisfying romantic relationship is not doing you any favors in terms of your quality of life.
Here are my suggestions for retaining connection in your relationship: 1) Get used to using the intentional dialogue with your spouse, whether you are talking about relationship issues or disagreements related to parenting. You want your spouse to understand and hold your fears, anger, frustration, etc (and you also want to hold your partner’s perspectives.) In this way, you support one another, even when you discuss disagreements.2) Prioritize time alone with your spouse; even if it’s simply doing away with electronics and ordering pizza at home one night a week. Your child’s behaviors do not need to come between you and your significant other.
And finally, in your every-day life, it may be helpful to get back in touch with the things that made you feel energized and “uniquely you” before you had your child. What were you all about, what are the things about you that having a difficult child has quelled? Are you longing to reconnect with that care-free part of you that could find humor in anything? Are you dying to start running again or get back into some semblance of a social life? Listening to your favorite music in the car, enjoying a hobby on the weekend, having a picnic outside, going for a walk with the neighbor, or splurging on a babysitter that specializes in special needs children are all small things that you can incorporate into your life. There are many things in life that your child’s behaviors can’t take away from you. In some cases, your child may even be eligible for respite care through the state (ask your therapist for more information on options for respite care in your area.) There is no reason that your child’s behaviors should preclude you from incorporating those lost parts of yourself back into your routine (any more-so than a typical child would.)
Okay, Parent WCTSGTFO, I realize all of that was a lot to consider at a time when you are already overwhelmed. If you get nothing else out of this article, your first and foremost priority is to establish support and guidance in the form of a therapist. You owe it to your child and yourself.
Who knows, if all goes well, you could find yourself enjoying a moment here and there with your child…And maybe, just maybe, her 18th birthday could come and go without “GTFO” ever once being said, or at the very least, you could be a little less miserable until the day comes when she does leave the nest.
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Disclaimer: While intended to be food for thought, the advice provided on this site is not intended to replace or act as therapeutic intervention/diagnosis formulation. Please consult with a professional who conducts an in-depth intake/evaluation/interview/observation in the event that you need therapeutic assistance