Helping Bipolar Children Stay on Medications

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Not taking medications properly is a common problem among bipolar children. Find out what steps parents can take to help them stay on track.

With proper treatment, most bipolar children are able to control their mood swings and related symptoms of bipolar disorder. Most bipolar experts believe that medication can be an effective treatment for bipolar children as long as the medicines are closely monitored. But medicines are only helpful if bipolar children take them as prescribed, which may not always happen. Fortunately, there are a number of ways that parents can help bipolar children stay on their medications.

Why Bipolar Children Struggle with Staying on Meds

It’s common for children, and especially teens, to stop taking their medication at some point during treatment. Bipolar children may stop taking their medicine in an effort to fit in. “Bipolar children and teens don’t like feeling different from their peers who may not need to take medicine for bipolar disorder,” points out David Fassler, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine in Burlington, Vt.

In some cases, bipolar children may stop taking their medicine when they start feeling better or because side effects are bothersome. Also, bipolar children may be resistant to feeling dependent on their parents. While independence is a normal part of growing up, children shouldn’t be allowed to handle treatment compliance on their own.

Problems Caused by Medicine Non-Compliance in Children

Bipolar disorder is best controlled when treatment is continuous rather than off-and-on. “Not taking medication or ignoring other aspects of treatment can lead to difficulties, including worsening or recurrence of symptoms and problems at home, in school, or with friends,” says Dr. Fassler. Plus, the longer bipolar children go without taking their medicine, the more resistant to treatment the bipolar disorder may become. Bipolar children should never stop taking medicine or change the dosage prescribed without consultation with a doctor.

6 Ways to Help Bipolar Children Stay on Their Meds

If your bipolar child fails to stick with treatment or resists taking bipolar medications, try the following strategies:

  1. Inform and involve. Explain what the medicine is and how it will help your child feel better. “Involving bipolar children in discussions and decisions about medications can also make kids less resistant to taking medicines,” says Fassler. Don’t talk over your child at doctor appointments. Direct some comments to your child about the medicines being prescribed and encourage your child to ask questions.
  2. Be honest. Answer your child’s questions as honestly as possible based on what is age appropriate. For young bipolar children, you might say: “Just like some medicine makes you better when you are sick, these pills help sad or angry feelings go away.” For older bipolar children, you might say: “Just like some of your friends take medicine for asthma or diabetes, people with bipolar disorder take medicine to make them feel better.”
  3. Use positive reinforcement. For young children, Fassler recommends using praise and rewards, like stickers, when your child stays on the bipolar medicine and takes it without complaint. For teens, you might emphasize how proud you are of your son or daughter for staying on the prescribed treatment plan and never missing doses of bipolar medicine.
  4. Try a pill dispenser. These devices can help bipolar children and teens remember to take their medicine in the correct amount and help you keep track of how much medicine for the bipolar disorder has been taken. Pill dispensers are available at most pharmacies for just a few dollars.
  5. Monitor side effects. No two bipolar children respond to medicine in exactly the same way. Some children may experience side effects. “Most side effects are temporary,” says Fassler. Explain to your child that these unpleasant symptoms should be going away soon, and that you’ll work as a team to fix things if they don’t. (Let your child’s doctor know about side effects; there are sometimes ways to reduce or eliminate them, or your child may need to put on a different medicine.)
  6. Find a role model. “It can be extremely helpful to find a peer with bipolar disorder to talk to your child and encourage him or her to stick with treatment,” notes Fassler. Support groups for bipolar children and teens are perfect for this. By hearing about other kids’ experiences, bipolar children will often feel less alone and understand why it’s important to take their medicine. The doctor who is treating your child’s bipolar disorder may be able to help you connect with a support group.

Bipolar disorder usually lasts for one’s entire life. By getting into the habit of taking medicine as prescribed and sticking with their treatment plan, most bipolar children can lead normal lives now and for years to come.


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