Bipolar Disorder is Caused by a Bad Childhood

July 26, 2011 Natasha Tracy

Hi. Thanks for joining us as we expose the biggest myths in mental illness. Today's myth: a bad childhood causes mental illness.

Trauma and Mental Illness

There is no doubt trauma can have severe and long-lasting effects on a person's psyche. Once having gone through certain experiences, they can shape who we are; and markedly traumatic experiences tend to shape more than the flavor of cake at your third birthday. No doubt.

However, there is nothing you can do to a child or adult to cause bipolar disorder. Not unless those people have a genetic predisposition for it.

mp900289682Your Mind is a Jar

Stay with me here. When you're born, your mind/brain function can be thought of as a jar. If you had no genetic predisposition to any mental illness, your jar would be empty. That would make you pretty unusual though. Most people have a "Crazy Aunt Sue," or "Weird Great-Granddad" kicking around in their family somewhere. For each of those, you get a jellybean in the jar.

Some people only have one or two jellybeans while others have many. For example, my father, being bipolar, would hand me a lot of jellybeans. There are many other types of risk factors that can also give you jellybeans when you're born.

Then you wander around through life and some of your experiences are going to give you more jellybeans - like death, divorce or bad parenting. That's OK. We all get jellybeans. That's why we have a jar. And the good news is we can take jellybeans out of our jar too, with things like therapy.

Unfortunately, over time, our jellybeans pile up and some people run out of space in their jar. Their jellybeans fall all over the floor. This is a mental illness.

42-16935753Overflowing Jellybeans

For some people, they are born with so many jellybeans already in their jar it doesn't take long before the jar overflows. For other people, they are born with so little risk that even after many life stressors they still have room for their jellybeans.

Life experiences didn't cause the mental illness; life stressors simply added to what was already there, which for some people, happens to be too much.

Medication Saves Jellybeans

While it would be nice to think therapy and other techniques could remove enough jellybeans for us to be on our way, for some, this just isn't enough - they need a bigger jar. That's what medication is. Medication gives you a little more room for jellybeans. And maybe, while the medication keeps you from spilling your jellybeans, you're able to use enough other tools such that if you stop taking the medication, all your jellybeans will fit.

Jellybeans Cause Mental Illness

The moral of the story is: no one thing causes mental illness - it is simply more or less likely, depending on the individual.

This is exactly the same as cancer. You may have a gene for cancer and never get it or you may have never smoked a day in your life and get lung cancer. That's thanks to the cancer jellybeans.

We only have control over some of our jellybeans. We just have to hope it's enough to keep the lid on our jar.

(Metaphor liberally stolen from Dr. Cheek. But in all fairness, she stole it from someone else first.)

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2011, July 26). Bipolar Disorder is Caused by a Bad Childhood, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 23 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Natasha is also unveiling a new book, Bipolar Rules! Hacks to Live Successfully with Bipolar Disorder, mid-2024.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleX, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

May, 4 2017 at 1:08 pm

Stress is a big trigger for those with bipolar disorder and every child's reaction to a stressful situation will be different. I've heard bipolar adults fabricate memories of their childhood to others, making it sound more unpleasant than it actually was.

January, 2 2016 at 5:19 am

So true! Mine was revealed twice. From being hospitalized in 1982, from a #FORCED #PartialBirthAbortion! Age 18,1/2... That took placed 08.24.1974!... #ARaping #FromMyThen #Husband #Whom was still a secret

December, 28 2015 at 4:21 am

At this point in my life, the dysfunctional family still adds jellybeans with their negativity, addiction, verbal abuse, cussing, body shaming, lack of education and empathy.

December, 21 2015 at 10:30 am

I never met a mentally ill person who didn't have a shitty childhood, ie inadequate parenting . And I never met a well adjusted person who didn't have a pretty good childhood, ie responsible and empathic parents. Natasha, you should start a blog that focuses on the negative impact of bad parenting on a child's emotional and psychological development, which often leads to mental illness; the world would be a much better place if more people were enlightened on the subject. You'd probably piss off the psychopharmaceutical industry, but who cares? You'd be making a great impact on the lives of future families and society at large. I love how brutally honest you were with the title of this post. Keep up the good work.

August, 4 2014 at 3:46 am

i'm probably the only that disagrees to some extent. Yes, bipolar runs in my family but i believe in my huge family it is caused by stress at an early age.. my uncle who has it the worse. my grandfather used to lock the kids in the cellar when grandma and him went to town on the farm.. he didn't want the kids to get into any mischief while they were away. my father said that all his brothers and sisters were fine and that the way it was... but his 1 brother would go crazy being locked up. plus he was the youngest.. i know the verbal abuse and no love in our house caused a lot of anger that i know triggered my bipolar. i have 34 first cousins. 1 got from being stalk for years in her teens. i wasted my life fighting a battle that i could not win. trying to change my parents to be more like the kind loving parents my friends had. biggest mistake i've ever made.. any1 reading this.. don't bet on losers!! focas all your energy on school, job, helping society. it all waist of time trying to change them. and of course the end result- we're crazy! even though were probably right

Greg Ayotte
November, 7 2012 at 8:08 pm

People such as myself may relapse in the future. Not everyone is the same and you shouldn't and the medical industry and society should not label someone who is bipolar as incurable. All you and the medical industry and society are trying to do is label and control people which is a problem in and if itself. It is this mind of prejudicial opinions of people in general that once you show mental distress or weak ess in your life you are less than normal and will never be normal. I feel that these kind of judgmental attitudes is what perpetuates people with mental illness taking on the roll of lifelong victim or disturbed individual. I am probably no less normal or mentally disturbed than most other people in society including my abusive family and judgemental medical personnel who can often be quite narcissistic. Mary I am sure you'll come back with some official statement to disagree with me and I really don't care, because I know that I went through some very difficult and stressful events in my life with no real support from my family. The fact that I am basically normal and pretty well adjusted and self confident once again says a lot to me about what a good and well adjusted person I have pretty much well been most of my life. I am not a problem person and I do not put other people down as many people do in our society. To me those people are the one's in sociey who have true mental disorders. When someone like me who has dealt with bipolar illness asks for help we get labelled for life as mental and less than normal, but as with any illness one can get better and can be cured. The reason the medeical industry wants people with my diagnosis to not get better is so they can continue to treat me and make money off of me and also control me and judge me. I refuse to be judged and controlled by anyone but myself anymore and I know I am cured for now and that I have no more or no less of a chance of redeveloping bipolar illness later in life again than anybody else who has had bipolar befor or hasn't including my family or the medical staff that has treated me. We are all volnurable to mental illness and we all have the capacity to get better and there is no cookie cutter cure that will work for one and all. We are all individuals and unique and we all deserve to be treated with respect and dignity and many of these medical doctors really seem to look down on the patients they are treating. Many times these type of judgements and prejudice are the very thing that has caused the mental illness to begin with. Isn't it ironic that the very medical staff that should be helping it's patients may actually be holding their patients down with the labeling and controlling that these medical people seem to enjoy. I am not saying all medical staff are like that, but all too often they are. I think that many of the medical industry really let their education go to their heads and to me that is a real sickness in and of itself. So who had the real mental problems someone like me who chose to get help and get better or the " normal " people who ate never diagnosed and are all to often quick to judge me as mentally defective because I admitted I had a problem and illness and chose to deal with it and was steadfast enough and lucky enough to get better.

Greg Ayotte
November, 7 2012 at 7:28 pm

I failed to mention that I no longer take medication, because I was finding that it really did not level me out. The thing that leveled out my emotions was my own self talk and personal behavior modification. These doctors of mental health are really interested in one thing, money and power contol over their patients. They want us to feel that we are sick and we will never get better unless we take those damn drugs that harm ones liver. That is not to say that some people need medication for life to function or that some

October, 25 2012 at 10:01 pm

If you are taking medication then you are admitting that the cause is at least partially biological and you are not "cured". She doean't say that parenting can't play a part in the development of the disease. That can be one of the stressors she is talking about.
Schizophrenia used to be considered caused by bad parenting. Now we know it is genetic. One study on genetically identical twins raised apart showed that when one twin is schizophrenic the other has a 70% chance of developing the illness. Obviously there are other factors involved,but that does show a definitive genetic cause.
I am not sure what genetic studies have shown in regards to bipolar, but I imagine that evidence is similiar, especially since there can be a big symptom overlap between bipolar and schizophrenia.
I myself have gone through years of therapy and "inner child work". This has not cured my bipolar. I do think however that it is a good adjunct tool in managing my illness.

Greg Ayotte
October, 25 2012 at 5:10 pm

I completely disagree with you. Unloving bad parents can cause a child to be depressed. Often to try to compensate for feeling depressed the child as an adult may suffer from manic episodes to shed the depression. There may be greater swings in moods than people who are considered to be "normal". I feel that what the adult child needs is understanding and love and behavior therapy to level out their emotions. I really and truly feel that if my parents had been more loving and understanding and less childish, I would not have suffered from bipolar. It has taken me over 10 years since my great depression to get better. I really feel I have cured myself with the help of medication and more importantly talk therapy with my therapist. I have actually had to stop seeing my parents and brothers because I realized that they have been unsupportive emotionally to me and are toxic to my mental health.

October, 3 2012 at 2:02 pm

On the one hand you say life's stresses contribute to your risk, yet you jump and say parenting doesn't cause bipolar. I would say a young child is susceptible to becoming mentally ill if there is no expressed love and/or lack of respect for the parents. If there is not a stable loving and stimulating environment children become casualties. There is so much wisdom lost in this world for many people whether conscious or not that we should return to common sense and not decades long medication for problems caused by parents. Things like mental illness can be cured by love understanding and if you look at recent studies psychedelics like mushrooms and morning glory seeds are being used for mind exploration chiefly to get at the mental illness and reverse those twisted circuits.

Natasha Tracy
March, 31 2012 at 5:54 am

Hi Lee,
Other people don't always do what we want them to or what we think is reasonable. I understand you might think your mother owes you the truth, but, I'm sorry, she doesn't. She's just a person and she may never be able to cope with the truth.
And understand, that is _not_ the only way to throw away jelly beans. We don't always get the closure we want from our parents, but closure is still possible, therapy is often helpful with this.
I hate to say this, but you may have to let it go - for your own sanity, not for your mother.
I have had to do this so I know that it's very hard. And it has changed my relationship with my mother. But it has been better for _me_ and _my_ mental wellness and that's what matters to me.
You can get over anything and while you might want the help of your mother to do it, it's not necessary. She does not have that power. You are stronger than that.
- Natasha Tracy

Lee Hamill
March, 30 2012 at 12:50 pm

In therapy and finding it hard for my mother to admit and tell her what know! This is the only way to throw away some jelly beans and get some closure! If she keeps ignoring my requests for the truth which is still affecting my mental health after 38 years - what do you do? She my mother after all but beginning to hate her - which can't be right!

Richard Jimenez
July, 31 2011 at 5:19 am

Wait!, no body move, I've dropped some jelly beans.......Don't want any one to slip..... Hey, couldn't I just eat some jellybeans to make some room....... : )

Natasha Tracy
July, 29 2011 at 7:54 am

Hi Leah,
No, you shouldn't feel bad for being sick but I will say that feeling is very common. People often admit to feeling guilty about it. I have felt that way too.
I'm glad you can see that it isn't your fault. And it's good you're working through the tough issues in therapy. Keep up the good work!
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
July, 29 2011 at 7:52 am

Hi Joyce,
Happy to help. Steal the metaphor as you wish (although I always appreciate credit).
It's really tough when kids have too many jellybeans in their jar. I can barely comprehend it, but genetics is funny that way. I do understand having a family full of crazy people. I have one too. But no one ever told me until years after I had been diagnosed.
You can't fight what you can't understand, so I guess the good news is, you're empowered with knowledge. Anything I can to help that is great.
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
July, 29 2011 at 7:48 am

Hi Vanessa,
That's great. The idea of the metaphor is to make it easy for people to understand that exact situation, so I hope it helps.
- Natasha

July, 29 2011 at 5:25 am

I forgot to mention that I have a sign on my back door to the deck that reads, "Family is like peanut brittle, it takes a lot of sweetness (love) to keep the nuts together"
No offense to anyone on this, it was a family joke really. The funniest part is my father in law gave it to me becuase of my family....adopted ones still have their own issues....more so really.
Thought some of you would like to use that too.

July, 29 2011 at 4:57 am

This was so amusing to me and made me laugh. The story of mental illness is a sad one as I work in Mental health, however I was adopted so who knows how many jelly beans are already in my jar that I have not found out about yet. It makes it more difficult for individuals who know nothing about their parents or their histories. This was a good way for me to understand why I have had to deal with some of the things in my life that I have. It is not my fault, so this helped me let some of my guilt go about myself and how I am. I have been through some horrible life events, but I do believe that we also have more strength in ourselves than we each give ourselves credit for. We can overcome anything if we really try, soul search, and be willing to learn and hear some things that may be painful but needed to be heard in the therapy sessions which are important for all of us who struggle. Best to all of you!

Joyce A. Anthony
July, 28 2011 at 8:33 pm

Natasha, I was going to ask if I could "steal" the metaphor from you!! Whoever first came up with it was a genius:-) It makes things so clear. My son was one of those who was born, unfortunately, with a jar already pretty full--both his dad and I are bipolar, his paternal grandfather was bipolar (as were both aunts on that side) my mother, grandfather and great-grandmother all were bipolar (and my mother has also been diagnosed schizophrenic). I have a sister that is bipolar and one that is schizophrenic. See what I mean about the jar being full.
I used to cry to see him so young and in so much emotional pain--due to something he neither caused nor asked for. He is one that didn't need outside jelly beans--his first night terror was at the age of one week--I couldn't figure out what a bay that young could be having a "bad dream" about--I didn't know much about night terrors then, I figured I'd just had nighmares my whole life.
Thanks for your great explanations in helpping people understand what mental disorders are and what they aren't. Keep up the good work!

July, 28 2011 at 10:30 am

That was an excellent way to discribe why some people suffer from mental illness and others do not. Right now my family and I are going through a tough situation. My grandmother had bipolar disorder, my father has bipolar disorder, I have bipolar disorder and now my second daughter has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
After her diagnosis it was difficult to find a way to inform my other two children without freaking them out and making them nervous. They had already been through so much, my daughter had attempted suicide twice and was on her third inpatient stay when she was diagnosed. While they understand why my daughter is having to face the issues she is, they are finding it difficult to understand why she is and they aren't. This metaphor will help me explain it better. Thank you so much!!

July, 28 2011 at 7:19 am

I don't know about jelly beans in the jar, but with my family history I have alot of nuts.
Davida x

Natasha Tracy
July, 28 2011 at 6:50 am

Hi Angela,
Thanks. Yes, the original metaphor used pebbles in a jar, but how much better is jellybeans! I like to mix humor into the pot when I can.
That sound like a good myth for you to bust. Mothers get blamed in unfair ways sometimes. (There's enough real blame in life, no need to pile on unfair blame too.)
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
July, 28 2011 at 6:48 am

Thanks for that extension. It's one I might even borrow.
- Natasha

Angela E. Gambrel Lackey
July, 28 2011 at 6:25 am

Stolen or not, it's still a great metaphor and you did a great job explaining that mental illnesses are caused by a variety of factors. You also have inspired me to do a post about this in relation to eating disorders, because one common myth is that EDs are caused by "cold, distant mothers." It is an old myth, but one that doesn't seem to want to die.
Great job!!!

July, 28 2011 at 2:15 am

I loved your jelly bean analogy. I love jelly beans and it made me really giggle. I also have a cracked jar that my jelly beans reside in. Too many high impact sports. Now they overflow from the cracks too.

Natasha Tracy
July, 27 2011 at 7:43 am

Hi Lynoth,
I'm glad the analogy speaks to you. I agree, I think my upbringing had something to do with bringing out my bipolar symptoms, maybe quite a bit, but whatever my parents may have done, good or bad, it's not their fault.
(Which I like to make clear because I think many parents have guilt over having mentally ill children.)
Thank-you for your kind words. I like to help where I can.
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
July, 27 2011 at 7:40 am

Hi Angela,
1. :)
2. Yes, the metaphor is simple, that's why I like it. I think we can all "get" it this way. Mental illness is hard to understand - jellybeans are easy.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go be mean to my cats ;)
- Natasha

July, 27 2011 at 6:45 am

well damn, I guess no more jelly bellies for me... LOL
seriously, I adore this analogy and will use it for years to come. Thank you for another awesome article! I agree that a bad childhood does NOT "cause" bipolar, but I do think that my upbringing contributed to the development of my symptoms and the ways in which I dealt (or didn't deal, as it were) with them.
Please keep up your incredible work. The clear, concise, non-threatening way you discuss these matters is so helpful.

Angela McClanahan
July, 27 2011 at 5:25 am

1. i like jellybeans and reading this made me hungry.
2. true, true, true, true, true. the metaphor is simple but the message is accurate. yes, it's entirely possible you will have a crappy childhood the more jellybeans are in your jar (particularly if said beans come directly from your parents) BUT having mentally ill parents doesn't guarantee a crappy upbringing, nor does having neurotypical parents guarantee starshine and flowers.
now if you'll kindly excuse me, i have to go be crazy and be mean to my kids. :P

Leave a reply