Bipolar-Proofing Your Home
The reality of bipolar disorder in young people is that it can, heart-breakingly, lead to some really serious and erratic behavior. As much as you try to remember that your child's experience is not his fault, it's really difficult not to take it personally when you are the target of violent aggression. There may be other people living with you and your child in your home, and the safety of everyone is at stake in an environment that should provide all with comfort and sanctuary. Remember the concept of prevention instead of intervention? There are some preventative measures you can take to avoid potential bipolar triggers in your home while keeping your child, yourself, and anyone else who lives with you safe from serious harm.
First, as you would for any child—but especially the child with bipolar—monitor carefully what your child is exposed to in the media. Music, television, computer content, and video games bombard our children with intensely violent and sexual images every day. If you don't assume control over what is acceptable in your home for your child's age and mental-health experience, you risk inciting and inspiring your child to reenact and recreate what he is exposed to in the throes of a bipolar meltdown.
Many newer televisions as well as cable-television providers offer built-in ways for parents to filter out programming that does not mesh with their standards. Contact your television's manufacturer or your local cable service to inquire about this. Similarly, many Internet service providers offer various parental blocks to prevent children from accessing adults-only computer Web sites.
As a parent, you have the right to regulate what your child watches on television (wrestling shows and horror movies are out) as well as the music he listens to. (This means certain rock and rap artists are banned in your home because of their destructive or sexualized music.) Internet Web sites and chat rooms should also be monitored. (Do you know who your child is e-mailing or instant messaging?) While you cannot avoid disturbing images and music in their entirety, significantly cutting down on the kinds of media to which your child is exposed should go a long way in preventing your child from mentally replaying or repeating intrusive or violent images.
Concurrent with doing away with the most offensive media output that invades your home, you'll want to assess your home itself. In partnership with your child, or, if you feel this is not best, at a time when you are alone, walk every inch of your home and carefully scrutinize the environment. What needs to be done in order to make your home as comfortable and livable yet safe as possible? You may have already experienced your child chasing you or another family member with a knife. Your child may have shattered something made of glass. Or she may have sent furniture or the television sailing through the air. All these circumstances can result in serious self-injury, harm to others, and property destruction.
If your child has been known to leave the house without letting you know (running away, or “eloping,” as a mental-heath professional will call it), do you need to use locking latches up high for young children, or padlocks to which you hold the key for teens? You don't want your home to be a prison fortress, but neither do you want to awaken to the sickening realization that you're child has gone missing during the night.
You might also consider putting locks or some other kind of (attractive-looking) barricade on your windows, or installing a security alarm that alerts you if windows are opened during off hours when you can't monitor your child.
Lock up all knives, scissors, fireplace pokers, razors, and other sharp objects (and perhaps pens and pencils too). A manic or depressed child armed with a weapon and whose thoughts are racing may strike out repeatedly at himself or others.
Does your television, music system, or computer need to be kept locked in another room or bolted to the floor, desk, or some other furniture? (Some kids have had spurts of such superhuman manic energy that they've even ripped out bathroom sinks barehanded.)
Do you need to store away any breakable cups, mugs, glassware, bowls, or plates for the time being? What about silverware, including forks and butter knives? Using disposable utensils, paper plates, and cups may not look pretty, but these items are certainly far less harmful.
Do you need to take down and remove all framed photographs and pictures? Shards of shattered glass can cause serious accidental injuries and can be used as weapons to injure oneself and others. You'll need to decide if all glass-framed pictures get locked in a storage area or whether the glass should be replaced with a shatterproof plastic.
Keep your car (and garage if you have one) locked and store the keys in a safe hiding place. You'd be surprised at how young some kids are who try to steal the family car (like ten years old!). Also, teens may be aware enough to know that you can commit suicide by inhaling carbon monoxide from a running car in an enclosed space. Be aware that some kids have attempted to leap from a moving vehicle, so it might be advisable to keep all doors locked while driving.
Keep all medications under lock and key, including anything your child may be prescribed for bipolar disorder. It is possible to easily overdose on many prescription medications. Similarly, keep all household cleaners and spray cans locked up as well.
Monitor the well-being of your pets. As much as you'd like to think your child would never harm your animal(s), a child in a bipolar meltdown may exert poor judgment in the heat of the moment, with no regard for who or what he targets.
Can you live with fewer or no freestanding lamps? The base and post of tall lamps can be used to assault others.
Lock up sports equipment that may be misused, such as archery equipment, darts, free weights, baseball bats, and hockey sticks. Do the same for work tools like screwdrivers, hammers, and electronic equipment. Any and all firearms (guns) should always be maintained under strict lock and key.
Do you need to daily, weekly, or routinely go through your child's room to look for illegal substances, media that you've clearly banned from your home, or objects that could be used as weapons? Some kids have also written out secret hit lists and elaborate plans for destruction. As much as you may not want to be the police, you may be compelled to thoroughly search your child's dresser drawers, closet, bathroom (including the toilet tank), school books, and computer. If your child has use of a cell phone, you'll also want to monitor all calls.
Know who your child's friends are, especially with teens. Do you know exactly who is in your home when you aren't there? Have you met your child's friends, talked with their parents, and asked about how they spend their free time together? Sometimes kids who are regarded as outcasts by their peers gravitate toward one another because they share similar experiences. Does your child have healthy friendships with kids you trust?
Do you need to learn about safety techniques to help you physically restrain your child as safely and briefly as possible to keep everyone protected? There are safe ways to apply bear hugs, basket holds, and other hands-on holds while helping to de-escalate your child with calming talk and deep breathing.
You may well use this list as a starting point for brainstorming other adaptations and accommodations to ensure that your home is as safe and comfortable an environment as possible. This is very important. You may be creating an environment in which a future tragedy is averted. When you sense your child is escalating (and you know your child best), you have a responsibility to quickly create a safe environment in the immediate area; this will be done more easily if the environment is already void of potentially dangerous items. If necessary, a safety-techniques training course at your local hospital or community resource center can teach you how to safely gain control and manage your child in a violent situation. You can learn how to deflect the momentum of someone who is charging you, escape from choke holds, and quickly contain someone on the floor where they'll be safest and out of harm's way. Additionally, sofa cushions and lots of throw pillows make soft, unobtrusive shields that may be used to create brief barricades or protect you and others from being hit.