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Jun 10, 2014 02:03 PM EDT

Children Of Bipolar Parents More Susceptible To Psychosocial Problems


Children of parents with bipolar disorder are more susceptible to psychosocial problems, most notably risky sexual behavior, according to a recent study.

"Risky sexual behavior falls along the spectrum of general externalizing behaviors, like delinquency and aggression. We know it is predicted by externalizing behaviors in middle childhood," Mark Ellenbogen, leader of the study and a psychology professor at Concordia University, said in a statement.

Bipolar disorder is among the 10 most burdensome medical conditions, according to the World Health Organization. The disorder is known for its dramatic highs of extreme euphoria, racing thoughts and decreased need for sleep, as well as its profound lows of sadness and despair.

Because it is also associated with a heightened risk of suicide, substance abuse, hypersexuality, familial discord and aggressive behavior, it does not just affect those suffering from it, but also those around them - especially their children.

For the study, researchers followed children of parents with bipolar disorder and children from families without mental disorder from between the ages of 4 and 12 until early adulthood. They assessed suicidal behavior, self-harm, smoking, delinquent or criminal behavior, and risky sexual behavior.

For both genders, the researchers saw the biggest group difference in the last category, which can be seen as an extension of other tendencies.

Researchers said that to prevent the offspring of parents with bipolar disorder from engaging in risky behavior, doctors need to look beyond the patient and give the entire family, including the children, the coping skills they need to live with the disorder.

"In psychiatry, we tend to treat the patient - there's never any evaluation of their family or kids or partners. Across my career, I've been saying that's the wrong way of looking at the issues," Ellenbogen said. "The children of [patients with dipolar disorder] are at high risk of developing a number of psychiatric and psychosocial problems. We need to think about interventions that will work for all members of the family."

The findings were recently published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

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