Children with bipolar disorder present an unusual
dilemma for their parents or caregivers. Unless they are stabilized,
most often through a combination of medication and therapy, they are
virtually impossible to discipline. Scores of parents across the country
can attest to this rather bold statement. As parents of children with
bipolar disorder we become accustomed to trial and intimate with error.
The levels of risk-taking and defiant behavior are high, often from an
early age. Our first, a feeble attempt at disciplining these kids leaves
us scarred and confused. I know. I have limped away, from my own son, so
that I could nurse my wounds. I read all the books. I went to therapy. I
asked my mother for advice. There seemed to be nothing I could do to
stop the endless power struggle that raged on between us. I started to
wonder if there was something wrong with me. Was I that horrible because
I overslept one day last week? Or because I had gotten divorced from his
father? Every time I stepped into the "Discipline ring" with
my son, I knew that I would have to be fast on my feet.
in the Discipline Ring
by Diane MacKenzie
ROUND ONE - "Distract him with something else."
Yes. That is exactly what the book said. If they are playing with
something inappropriate, offer them something else. Remove the object
from their hand and replace it with a toy or your own hand and draw
their interest toward something more appropriate. Okay. I can do that.
And sure, it makes sense. So, why not? I reached for the remote control
while shaking his favorite toy in my other hand. He giggled and jerked
his hand away. I chimed, "Give Mommy the 'mote, Keith." He
smiled and spun on his heel, pitching the device across the room. I
heard it land with a resounding thud. We looked everywhere...couldn't
find it. We located it by accident while cleaning the ashes out of the
fireplace. The same fireplace that we had already dug through several
times. Now, if you apply this same scenario to other things, many of
which are never located again (i.e., lighters, small animals, forks,
knives, various tools and an assortment of other age-inappropriate
items) you have the results of our trial run with the distraction
theory. Needless to say, it was not a method that we used for a very
long period of time.
ROUND 2 - "Time-out is an effective method of discipline, if the
technique applied correctly."
Time-outs can be effective. My daughter responds to it very well if it
is used consistently and correctly. However, "correctly" is a
relative term in this case. Some books say that the child must be seated
in a chair, where there is little to distract him or her. Other
materials say that the child must be confined to his or her room. Once
they are in their room there are certain things they are not allowed to
do. Talking on the phone, playing video games and watching television
are out of the question. The idea is to separate them until they have
time to refocus and can cooperate. The book said to have the child get
to know the chair. Let them sit in it and set the timer (one minute per
year of age) so that they have an idea as to what they should expect.
Keith was three years old at the time. Our therapist had suggested that
we give this a shot. I looked up to find Keith swinging one of his toys
around the living room. He had tied a long piece of string to a fairly
heavy truck and was simulating some kind of tornadic activity. I calmly
but firmly told him to stop....one...then two...then three times. Third
time is the charm that gets the chair. I took him by the hand and led
him to his chair. I explained that he would have to sit in the chair
until the timer went off and further, that if he got up or talked or
played that his time would start over. Little did I know that he had no
concept of time, whatsoever. Unfortunately, he still doesn't seven years
later. The first time that he was sent to the time out chair he spent
the next three hours there. He screamed. He kicked. He rocked the chair
so hard that he turned it over twice. I was finally forced to sit in the
kitchen chair beside him. He had to have constant supervision, just
ensure that he remain seated. Every time he was allowed to get up,
despite having broken every single rule, he was back in the chair in
less than ten minutes. We continued on with this trial run for the next
three months. I could no longer do housework. My daughter suffered
because I could not spend adequate time with her. The strain on my
relationship with Keith's father (Who was also bipolar, although it went
untreated and undiagnosed, throughout the course of our marriage)
mounted until we began fight more and more often. Our therapist insisted
that we were doing something wrong. We had followed the rules to the
letter and his behavior remained the same. The therapist advised us to
make an appointment with a psychiatrist. He no longer felt capable of
helping us or our son. Another bell had rung and another round was over.
ROUND 3 - "Reward the child for positive behavior using a sticker
chart to detail their
Sticker charts are neat. They are fun to design and there are even some
really nice, inexpensive, pre-made boards that come with reusable
stickers. There are computer programs that print out "checks"
and keep a running tally of the child's account balance. I though to
myself, " What a great idea. It must work well or it wouldn't be so
easy to fin." I remembered using the little metallic stars when I
was in school and though that it would be fun for the both of us.
Rewards can be as small as a piece of gum or, as big as a trip to the
zoo. It is best to save the larger rewards as monthly or weekly treats.
Whatever fits into your budget and schedule. However, the novelty wears
off of sticker charts very quickly. Keith became impatient. He did not
understand nor, was he capable of, waiting the required amount of time
to earn a reward for his behavior. As he got older, he developed more
expensive tastes and was not as easily impressed. Stickers, candy and
small, piĆ±ata-size toys just didn't cut it anymore. He expected to go
to Dairy Queen for ice cream or McDonald's for a Happy Meal every day.
Keith has a meltdown when events do not meet his expectations. After
experiencing several of these rages, we decided to can the charts once
and for all. It had become more work and was producing some very
undesirable results. Last year, the school administration informed me
that they were going to try something similar. They devised a sticker
notebook to encourage Keith to do his homework. They asked if I had
attempted this before. I advised them of our luck with this method but,
insisted that they go ahead. Things seem to work differently for Keith
in different environments. I warned them that his interests change
quickly due to the nature of the disorder and that the rewards would
have to be changed frequently. Rewards progressed from a small treat, to
homework passes, to extra computer time, to an occasional Coke and candy
bar from the vending machine. Needless to say, I was called in for a
conference to discuss yet another strategy. The round three bell rung
and we all collapsed in our neutral corners, exhausted and temporarily
ROUND 4 - "Let him fall and get hurt a few times.
He won't do it anymore. He'll learn."
My brother has a simple philosophy when it comes to children. He used to
tell me all the time to stop hovering over my son. He seemed to have no
idea exactly what Keith was capable of doing. His oldest daughter had
been a handful and he was certain that Keith's behavior could not be any
worse or more dangerous than hers. After attempting everything, short of
grounding or spanking, we decided to let Keith find out for himself.
Letting cause and effect teach him what was acceptable and what was not,
sounded like an easy thing to do. I decided that maybe my brother was
right. He was older and wiser. He had been married to their mother for
15 years so he must have a knack for this stuff. He had done a wonderful
job raising two beautiful girls that had turned out to be intelligent,
polite and well-mannered. What could it hurt? We had tried everything
else, hadn't we? Needless to say... three dog bites, countless broken
toys and numerous accidents later... we had to admit that this tactic
was not going to work either. He simply did not learn from trial and
error. It almost seemed that, if a particular activity had dangerous or
undesirable consequences, it was immediately more appealing to him than
before. He seemed to thrive on the risks that he took and the nerves
that he shook. I was convinced that I was raising the next Evil Kneivel...that
I was going to have a head full of gray hair by the time I was
thirty...and that I had met defeat once again, in the discipline ring.
ROUND 5 - "Ground him. Make him stay home and he'll shape up. Take
privileges. He's probably being influenced by his friends."
I now know, why my mother never grounded me. Grounding is as much
punishment for the parent as it is the child. It always starts very
subtly, about an hour or so, after Keith wakes up.
Plaintively, he whispers, "Mommy, I love you."
I say, "Well, I love you too, Keith."
He says, "Mommy, can I go to [insert "friend of the
week's" name here]?"
I calmly say, "No. You can't. You are grounded for [insert
"offense of the week" here]. Remember?"
He says, "But Mommy, there is nothing to do." He is getting
much more vocal at this point. His voice has definitely gotten louder
and he is standing up and moving towards me. He seems to be in actual
"No, Keith. You can't. You are grounded." I say it with
firmness and give him a chance to respond. He only glares at me.
When he does walk away the chances are high that the scenario will end
in one of two ways. He will either wait, until I am in the bathroom or
attending to some other necessary task and, he will walk brazenly out
the front door or he will work himself up to a crescendo repeating the
first scene time and again, until he rages and lashes out at me.
Following this rage he will collapse in total exhaustion. (Believe me,
those rages wear me out so I know it must be much harder on him.) I have
never seen anyone have an epileptic seizure but, I am sure that these
rages are similar in appearance.
However, allow me to say, that of all the forms of discipline I have
discussed, this is the most effective. Sometimes, it is absolutely
necessary. When Keith is very manic or when he is close to the boiling
point of rage, constant supervision is essential. It helps us to ensure
his safety, the safety of his siblings and the safety of others. It is
those times that we have to batten down the hatches and be prepared to
ride it out. We have had to go to the extreme of locking ourselves into
the house at night and nailing the windows shut. (The kids have been
given explicit permission to break any window in our home in the event
of a fire.) It is not an orthodox way of parenting. It is an effective
way of parenting and one that is essential to our survival as a family.
ROUND 6 - "He just needs a good spanking. A paddling would set that
I have never believed in corporal punishment. I found out, that
desperation will make us do things that we never thought that we would
do. Keith's behavior has become progressively worse since the age of
three. Several times, over the course of his young life, we have been
told that he needs a good whipping. A few short slaps to the backside
would turn him into the model child. I resisted for years before coming
to believe that anything was possible. Maybe spanking did work. I had
never tried it so, how could I argue. I was never spanked as a child so,
I could not make an assessment of its pros and cons. We began to spank
him. At first, it was only for major offenses. We noted no change in his
behavior. Then we decided to spank him for both, major and minor
offenses. It seemed that the more we spanked him, the more we had to
spank him. We also had to spank him harder and harder to achieve the
same effects. I absolutely could not do it anymore. It suddenly dawned
on me, that I was using the wrong technique, once again. I backed up and
reassessed the situation. Part of the reason that it was wrong for our
family is because, I was strongly opposed to it. Once I came to
understand that I was going against my better judgment, I went back to
using preferred techniques. I was more confident in parenting my son.
Being more confident made the methods we chose to use more effective.
But these same methods were still far from perfect. We no longer
physically discipline Keith at all.
Bear in my mind that this is only our personal story. I am also quite
certain, that there are many similar stories, involving children with
other difficulties. I am not, in any way, saying that the aforementioned
methods do not work at all. If consistent limits and rules are applied,
these techniques can be turned into solutions. However, with a bipolar
child, the parent remains in training permanently. We must be quick and
creative. Solutions must be innovative and are sometimes seen as
unorthodox to an outsider. The methods described here have to be altered
and employed at different times. The parents must learn to recognize,
the different phases of the disorder, in order to discipline the child
effectively. Different forms of communication must be used depending on
the affected child's mood. Fortunately, this often forms a very open
line of communication between the parent and the child. I can say that,
despite the chaos it sometimes causes, it does have its virtues. Keith
and I have to speak very honestly to one another in order to avoid major
misunderstandings over minor incidents. The result is a hodgepodge of
styles that blend together forming something of a "consistent
inconsistency." As confusing as it seems to spectators, it is often
the only way to effectively manage these children until some degree of
stabilization is attained. We have had our battles. I have won a few,
lost a few. We have all gotten banged up along the way. But, I have to
admit that I value the time that we have spent in the discipline ring.
I am a poet by nature and a writer at heart....29yo
mother of three born in Memphis, TN on Halloween. I love to
write...poetry, articles, fiction, the whole shebang. I write for myself
and for anyone else who might be interested in my occasionally coherent
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