Son's Fear of Thunderstorms
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Q:  Son's Fear of Thunderstorms

Dear Dr. Phelps:

My wife was diagnosed  with having bipolar disorder about 11 years ago shortly after we got married. She was involuntarily hospitalized in Dec 1991, June 1992, Feb 1993 and Mar 1995 because of dangerous bizzare/delusionsl behaviors and refusal to take medicine and see doctors. Her major episodes have been under control in recent years. Through the years I have been educating myself about the illness and tried my best to
help her. It has been very difficult. Last June, she walked  out of our home, takjing her belongings with her. Right before she left, she showed some delusional behavior (in addition al regular symptoms of a person with bipolar) saying that someone was tracking down on her and wanted me to have our telephone number changed (similar mild delusions occurred before). She never told me her address, but was living alternatively between her place and our home. Later she filed for custody of our son.  The court awarded the temperory custody to me and visitation to her. I cared about her very much, and now I could not do anything about it because of the all legal battles and lack of understanding of people who were involved in this. My son and I were devastated for a brief while.   Lately, we are getting a lot better. Taking care of my son is not a major difficult problem because I have been very much the primarycare giver throughout his life, especially the last 5 years.

From all my observations my wife and the man she is sharing the Apartment with are having an affair (the man's parents also live there). I know this family briefly before (once they asked my wife to help them find a girlfriend for their divorced).  They have no knowledge of my wife's illness. And they are very very mean and hostile to me for no apparent reason as far as I could understand (BTW, we are all ethenic chinese). I wonder what kind of help I can get. My wife is an intelligent woman and is quite good in hiding her secrets unless everything is truely out of control.

Another important questions I have is regarding my 9 yr old son. My wife became ill during the pregnency and delivered the baby during her second hospitalization in June 1992. I have been concerned about my son's mental wellbeings. His school performance is excellent. The problems are that he does not talk to other adults unless they are extremely familar to him (like his teachers and parents). Another major problem is that he is constant afraid of tornados whenever there is wind and cloud out there--it does not matter whether it is winter or summer. He started to show phobia of thunderstorm starting in 1996. Since we are living in a house with basement, he would run into the basement whenever there are rains/thunderstorms. Are these symptoms of bipolar disorder?

He is cheerful living with me and I am very loving and patient with him. 

Your help will be greatly appreciated.

Dear Mr. J' -- 
Your description of this situation is touching: your "patience", as you call it, is evident in the way you tell this story.  You have been through a lot, and so has your son.  One of my thoughts in response: I wonder if your son's reaction to weather is actually more related to the kinds of emotional "storms" he's already been through, as opposed to bipolar disorder.  I have not seen a fear of thunderstorms in association with bipolar disorder, at all, nor seen it described.  

However, very often people with bipolar disorder can go through phases where they are extremely sensitive to intense stimuli like noise, touch, light, and especially people.  A crowd of strangers would be the worst.  I can imagine that a loud thunderstorm could be very tough to handle too.  These patients of mine sometimes have these super-sensitivities briefly in phases, but some have them almost full time.  The supersensitivity seems to respond somewhat to bipolar medications ("mood stablizers", as you probably now know quite well), though often not entirely, and the sensitivity to people seems to be the least likely to respond.  

If your son seems not to talk to others because he feels very anxious when he has to, that might be related to all this (a substantial "social phobia" seems to travel commonly with this particular complex version of bipolar disorder; that's the part that does not seem to really improve with mood stabilizers, although there's a new cognitive-behavioral therapy for social phobia that has been getting good results for adults).  

So, my primary recommendation, if you have not pursued this already, would be to try to find a therapist for your son.  One who knows this CBT for social phobia would be ideal, but finding such a therapist is hard enough let alone one who works with children -- that could be a rare combination.  In that case, just a good sensitive therapist would do, as obviously the challenge would be to help your son become comfortable enough with this person to actually talk to her/him, which could take a while, probably in our presence, to get going.  In that respect you might not see gains from this work for months.  But in the long run I hope that such a person would become the one your son could talk to about his fears and his experiences and then, especially, his symptoms if he did go on to develop bipolar symptoms.  

Finally, let me acknowledge that your situation is very complex and that even making a recommendation like "your son should see a therapist" could be completely wrong.  Please take it as a reaction to the story as you told it here.  I hope you have some good fortune as you try to raise your son in this situation.  Thank you for writing. 

Dr. Phelps


Published February, 2002


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