The bond between a parent and child is very special. Sometimes this bond goes far beyond and we see something immensely heartwarming and unique in this bond. This is the story of a father and son who share a bond that transcends the boundaries of a deep and loving bond between the two.
We hope by sharing this story that other parents will know they are not alone. We also hope that parents may find some suggestions from this story that may work with their own child. *Names have been changed to protect the individuals.*
Jack is a 10-year-old boy who has bipolar disorder. His mom, Anna, has mainly been a stay-at-home mom, and his dad, Peter, works full-time. At first, Jack’s parents thought he was what many people describe as the “difficult” child. Between 2 and 3 years old, his parents felt there was something going on with him but couldn’t explain what it was. They also noticed he reacted differently to things than other children his own age. They turned to their son’s pediatrician for help and received a referral to another doctor who specialized in ADHD. This began a lengthy process of question and answer sessions and several referrals to different doctors and specialists. Finally, with a referral to a pediatric neuropsychologist, they had some of the answers they were looking for. Jack had several diagnoses, with the main one being pediatric onset (childhood) bipolar disorder.
As a young child, Jack had a smile that just pulled on the heartstrings of everyone he came in contact with. For the most part, he was a loving, caring, sharing, sweet little boy – but it was the other times that just didn’t fit. If Jack was told no, plans changed, or he felt that he didn’t get his needs met fast enough, it was as though the end of the world was coming. Jack would scream and cry. He would throw things. He would hit, kick, bite, and scratch his parents. He would try to run away. These “temper tantrums” happened in the home and out of the home – they weren’t your typical 3 or 4 year old tantrums with all over and forgotten in a matter of minutes – they would sometimes last for hours.
Jack’s mom, Anna, tried everything she could think of when Jack would get extremely irritable in order to help him keep calm and stay in control. It seemed like she could never figure out the right thing to do and when to do it to help Jack to calm down and not escalate to the level of a raging tantrum. She tried to make sure there weren’t any sudden changes. She made sure she was always prepared with snacks, drinks, stuffed animals, and other items for Jack to keep busy with. She gave Jack lots of love, hugs, and cuddles. But nothing worked. Even though Jack was for the most part a sweet, caring little boy, there were times where he was the complete opposite and seemed to be extremely angry and upset. Sometimes, Jack would yell at his mom and push her away. While his mom was crushed and heartbroken when this would happen, after Jack finally calmed down, he would go to Anna for hugs as though nothing had happened.
With Jack’s dad, Peter, there seemed to be a special connection – it was as though he understood him without either one speaking and with just a look knew what Jack needed. Jack’s dad seemed to have an uncanny ability to know when things were starting to bother Jack and was able to keep him calm. The things he did seemed unconventional by most parenting techniques, but they worked. When Jack received his diagnosis of childhood bipolar disorder, it all made sense. You see, Peter also has bipolar disorder.
Once Peter and Anna found out that Jack also had bipolar disorder, the special connection between Jack and his dad made more sense. Peter was more easily able to pick up on what Jack was feeling and going through because he had experienced the same things. Throughout his life, Peter had learned to recognize signs in himself that something was going on and develop coping strategies to help himself stay calm. If Peter and Anna had known that bipolar disorder was hereditary and there was an increased risk of 15% to 30% that their child could have early-onset bipolar disorder, they might have been able to help Jack sooner. Unfortunately, when they were visiting doctors to figure out what was going on with Jack, there wasn’t very much information available about what bipolar disorder looked like in young children, or how to help them when they were struggling.
Anna and Peter never knew when Jack might start struggling, but when he started becoming very irritable and fidgety, they knew there was a possibility of Jack losing control. Jack’s dad always seemed to know when something was starting to bother Jack even before he started getting on edge. Peter would do different things with Jack to help him to stay calm. Doing things outside, exercise, and working with his hands were the things that helped the most.
One of Jack’s favorite things to do with his dad is look for garages. Peter would hold his hand out to Jack, and say, “Come on, you and Daddy are going for a walk.” Hand in hand, off the two would go. The walks could be just a few minutes or an hour long. Peter made the walk into an adventure to look for “cool garages.” The movement helped Jack to calm down, and looking for garages was something to distract him from whatever was running through his mind.
When they weren’t able to go outside, Peter taught Jack different things he could do with his hands. Jack’s dad was able to make everything into something exciting and interesting. If they were making paper airplanes, they would see which one would fly the farthest. When they drew pictures, they would try and guess what the other one was drawing. Jack’s favorite drawing activity was when they were able to draw something like a birdhouse, and then turn that into a woodworking project. Jack enjoyed the quiet time with his dad and switching gears to a creative, quiet task working with his hands helped Jack to calm down and take the focus off of whatever was getting him on edge.
Jack’s dad knew when Jack needed to have complete silence and when he was ready to talk and listen. When Jack was ready, Peter would talk about what they were doing and then would share stories with Jack about when he was a little boy and the things he would do to help himself stay calm and focused. The stories helped Jack to know that he wasn’t alone – other people sometimes felt the same way he did. The special bond Jack and his dad shared grew as Jack began to see that someone understood exactly how he was feeling. Peter would always praise Jack when he was able to calm himself down and tell him what a good job he was doing with whatever activity they were involved in.
Anna and Peter were worried when it was time for Jack to start school. They didn’t know how Jack would adjust to a new setting with lots of people and rules. They didn’t know if the teachers and other school staff would listen to them about what worked best for Jack and make accommodations for the symptoms of his bipolar disorder. What if no one understood the nature of childhood bipolar disorder? Most of all, they were concerned there might be triggers at school they hadn’t discovered yet. Jack had a hard time, even in kindergarten. By the time he was 8 years old, Jack’s struggles with school had increased each year. It wasn’t easy for him to move from one activity or class to the next; he would often get easily frustrated trying to stay focused and complete assignments; and he had a hard time making and keeping friends. He would say that nobody liked him, not even the teachers, and that everything was just too hard. Jack would alternate between being sad and withdrawn or on edge and angry after school.
Anna and Peter would get frequent phone calls from the school and had several meetings with Jack’s teachers. The teachers said that Jack had behavior problems and was unwilling to do his schoolwork. They also said that Jack would often over-react when told to stay on task; asked to move to a different activity; told to stay still; or sometimes when other children got too close to him or he did not like what the other children said. Jack’s teachers said that he wanted things his way and that his choices to yell, run out of the room, or throw things were not appropriate. One teacher said that it was Jack’s fault that he didn’t have any friends and another teacher even told Peter and Anna that Jack chose to act the way he did and that bipolar disorder was just an excuse for him to misbehave.
There were many times the school principal would call Anna or Peter to tell them they had to come to the school immediately to take care of Jack. The principal would say that Jack was out of control and the school felt he was choosing to act in a way that was unsafe just so he could either get his way, or get attention. When Anna and Peter would arrive at the school, they could hear Jack screaming the moment they walked in the door. Jack’s screams sounded like he was fighting for his life.
As soon as Peter would see Jack, he knew something was going on. Jack looked like he was in a trance; his pupils were dilated; and his eyes were darting all over the place. Jack had no idea what was going on, or where he was – all he knew was that he had to get away, no matter what. Jack wouldn’t even notice his parents in the room. It wasn’t until Peter got down on his level and looked him in the eyes that Jack started to come back. Peter felt like his heart was breaking to see Jack like this, and struggling with school just like he did. He knew something had triggered this rage in Jack, and that most likely the teachers and one-on-one aide asigned to Jack either were not paying close attention to the signs that he was starting to get frustrated and on edge, or had simply chosen to ignore the signs.
The teachers always said that Jack would go into a screaming rage for no reason, but Peter knew differently. He knew Jack had some of the same difficulties in school that he did. These triggers were all things that Peter and Anna had shared with the school, but they refused to listen and make changes that would help Jack to better manage the symptoms of his bipolar disorder. Most of Jack’s rages could have been avoided if the teachers would have listened to his parents. One of the most important things Peter and Anna shared with the school was to recognize and deal with things appropriately and in a timely manner when Jack started to show signs of becoming more and more irritable. Some of Jack’s triggers at school included: not giving Jack warnings when it was getting close to transition times; not giving him extra time to complete assignments; not allowing him to complete his current task before asking him to switch gears and move to a new task; not breaking classwork down into smaller parts; ignoring him when he was struggling with work; not letting him have movement breaks when needed; not warning him of changes in the day; and making him stand or sit too close to other students.
Peter and Anna had constant struggles with the school. Even though Jack had an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), they felt that there were not enough supports in place specific to Jack’s unique needs. His parents were repeatedly told they were asking for too much; the things they requested were not doable; and that a large part of Jack’s difficulties was due to Jack choosing to misbehave, which in turn caused problems for Jack with his classmates and affected his ability to learn. Anna and Peter shared everything they could with the school about childhood bipolar disorder and how best to work with Jack so he could be successful. They gave the school handouts with information from doctors and organizations that focused on childhood bipolar disorder – they even included a list of books, websites, and organization contact information.
The information Peter and Anna provided the school about teaching strategies for working with a bipolar child was well-documented. Even with all of this well-documented information and what they knew from personal experience about the supports Jack would need to be successful, the school still did not listen. Time and time again, the teachers and school administration would come back to blaming Jack – Jack chose to misbehave; he purposely refused to follow directions and act appropriately; he made it difficult for himself and other students to learn with his negative behaviors; he chose to treat classmates and teachers in such a way that no one wanted to be around him.
Anna and Peter did not like hearing this – it made them feel even more that the school was unwilling to help Jack be successful. Sometimes they felt that the school didn’t want to help Jack, but much worse than that, it was like the school didn’t even want Jack there. Anna was quite upset by this realization, but Peter took it really hard. It was especially difficult for Peter to deal with because he knew that just like he had, Jack was trying as hard as he could to keep things together when he was at school and wanted to fit in and make friends.
Jack was like any other person with bipolar disorder – his greatest wish was to be “normal” – to feel like he belonged and was part of something; to be liked and accepted; and to not feel everything so differently from everyone else. Jack didn’t want to be alone. He wanted to spend time with people and have friends. It never mattered what he did with someone, just that he wasn’t alone and could be a part of something.
Jack would look for opportunities to be a part of something. He could be very kind and caring, and enjoyed helping others. Often, he was the first person to help out, even with things like household chores and yard work. Again, for Jack, the activity was not what mattered. The important thing was that he was involved in being a part of something with someone else. When Jack felt that he was accepted and appreciated, he was like any other little boy. He was happy and had a positive attitude. He easily participated in activities. He would share with others and express interest in what they were doing. Peter and Anna were thrilled when Jack was like this, and hoped there were more times when Jack was feeling good than when he struggled.
As much as Jack wanted to be able to make and keep friends, he often misunderstood the things his friends said or did. Sometimes Jack saw things differently than they really were and would think the other children were “out to get him”, were trying to hurt him, or that they did not like him. When Jack perceived things this way, his defenses went up and he would act in ways he thought were appropriate to what he felt was going on. His friends did not know that Jack sometimes did not see or feel things as they really were. When Jack would get very upset and yell or scream, his friends would get scared because they did not understand what was going on with Jack.
Issues with making and keeping friends made Jack’s bond with his dad even more important. It helped Jack tremendously to know that with his dad, he would always be accepted and have someone who understood him, even if he didn’t quite understand himself how he was feeling or why he was feeling that way. It often seemed like the two communicated in a silent, secret language as Peter somehow almost magically knew when Jack was struggling and what would help him. Through the years, Jack has developed a better understanding of knowing when he is starting to feel on edge and what he can do to help himself. But even now at 10 years old, there are still times when things get to be too much for him to handle on his own and somehow his dad always knows and is right there helping Jack to calm down and feel safe and secure.
Currently Jack is now attending a school for special needs children who have mental health illnesses, and other emotional/behavioral disorders. This school has an awesome, understanding, and supportive staff. Jack has made great gains and progress academically, emotionally, and with friendships.
One of Peter’s favorite sayings is: “Bipolar is not an excuse. It is just a different way of seeing things.” If schools won’t adapt to the differences of children with special needs, they will never be successful.