Bipolar in the schools.

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As a school psychologist for many years, I have observed that Bipolar has become one of the more popular labels put on our youth today.  Many kids get angry and depressed.  However, many of these kids aren’t truly bipolar, they are simply experiencing natural feelings in response to their life circumstances.  They are angry because they are not having basic human needs met.  Although I used the word depressed, these kids aren’t suffering from true clinical depression.  They are sad, with very hurt feelings and unmet emotional needs.  How do adults often feel after a divorce?  They experience a range of feelings, but they certainly feel alone, or lonely.  Children also experience a wide range of feelings – feelings they don’t understand and don’t know how to deal with.  They are children after all.  These feelings only make them angrier and they develop a low self-worth (sometimes referred to as self-esteem) and an “I don’t care attitude”.   Such feelings do not have to be from a divorce.  In fact, from my experience in working with children, divorce is usually not the culprit.  The message they get is that their parents, the most important people in their lives, don’t really care much about them.  They are not important in their parent’s lives.  They get what’s left over of their parent’s time and interests.  And so they do badly in school.  They figure my parents don’t care about me, so why should I care about how I do in school.  Of course their anger gets them into trouble in school.  When pressed by the teacher to do an assignment they lash out in anger.  No wonder they say things like, “You’re not my daddy!”  They don’t see themselves as valued by their parents, so they don’t see the value in doing well in school.  Just think if your spouse didn’t give you much time or attention, would you feel valued and loved by them?

These children are deprived emotionally.  There is an emptiness, a piece missing so to speak.  They are not clinically depressed.  Their unmet emotional needs have become part of their personality, and they learn to deal with it however they can.  They haven’t given up on life, they are just missing that very important bond and attention that normally connects a parent and child, and does not result in children who are angry, self-centered (self-sufficient), and behavior problems.  Children who grow up in a healthy home do things for their parents in large part because they bonded with their children since day one.  These children know they’re loved, trust their parents, know they’re there for them, and respect them.  They want to please their parents and make them happy.

I have been asked countless times by principals and teachers to “see” a child because of his anger or temper.  On one such occasion, the principal suggested to me that maybe I should help this angry young man identify his feelings, and then teach him how to deal with these feelings.  This might sound like a really good idea to lots of people.  We have all heard the expression “get in touch with your feelings.”  The real problem is that we can’t change the root of the problem, which is the child’s unmet emotional needs.  We can’t change his parents.  Children like this have basic emotional needs that educators cannot fulfill – needs that only parents can fulfill.  This particular child, knows that he is angry, but usually does not really know why.  Deep down they don’t want to be mad at their parents.  What they really want is their time and love.  They often won’t tell you directly that they are angry or sad, but the writing is on the wall.  Or they may tell you they are angry or ticked-off about something, but it is not the real problem.  For example, he may say that his parents are too strict, but what I find out is that he is really craving their attention and time, so he finds something to lash out at.  Unfortunately, I have learned that that no type or amount of talking can meet these emotionally deprived children’s needs.  And it should be this way!  If talking with a professional at school (or anywhere) can somehow “fix” or meet these kids emotional needs, then what do we have parents for?


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