Monthly Archives: July 2021

How Having A Dog Became The Best Therapy For My Kid


As early as five years old, I had seen some symptoms of bipolar disorder in my son, Joe. There were days when everything he would do would be on the extreme side. For instance, if he were excited, he would do whatever, even if it hurt him. If he were angry about something, he would fling objects around and sometimes end up hurting himself.

Then, during Joe’s low moments, he would refuse to get out of bed, no matter if we tried to persuade him with his favorite pancakes. If we ever manage to do that, we could not encourage him to go to preschool or play with his Big Brother. All Joe would want to do was stay on the couch and do nothing else.

The thing was (and I always felt guilty about it), I was aware that those were signs of bipolar disorder, but I still did not bring my son to a psychiatrist until he turned seven years old. Though some people might condemn me for it, being in denial that you have an imperfect child was common among parents. I kept telling myself that young boys tend to behave like Joe so that I could put off a mental health diagnosis for as long as possible.


Confirming BP

My husband and I decided to have Joe checked by a psychiatrist when we realized that he did not care about safety during his manic episodes. Before that, after all, our son snuck out of the house on a Saturday and took off with his bike on his own. He did not go too far; he mostly stayed in the local park, riding in circles. However, something wrong could still have happened to him, even if he felt invincible at the time.

When the psychiatrist confirmed my worst fear, I died a little inside. In my book, anyone with a mental health disorder would require lifetime assistance. I did not dread looking after Joe for the rest of my life, but I felt sad to imagine that he would not grow up and have all those experiences as others would have.

I voiced my concerns to the psychiatrist. I was glad I did that because she told me that bipolar kids could have normal adulthood. “Many of my previous patients have stable jobs others are already married and have happy families. Because of that, I do not see any reason why Joe cannot have the same fate.”

“How can we increase Joe’s chances of living a full, independent life?” I asked. At that moment, a sliver of hope gripped my heart.


“The best option for Joe is to go to therapy. I can recommend you to some of the child therapists I know to positively impact their young clients’ lives. With him being so young, I would honestly not suggest giving him any drugs. That’s especially true if therapy could teach him early to recognize his symptoms and deal with them. More importantly, it may be ideal for Joe to have a service dog.”

Everything that the psychiatrist said made sense to me, specifically the need for therapy. I could already imagine that this treatment would help my son understand the difference between excitement and mania, although I did not expect him to realize it soon. He might also learn some distracting techniques during his depressive periods so that he could feel better. The only thing that I had to question was the service dog part.

“Doc, we already have a family dog that Joe loves. Can’t we turn him into a service dog?”

“You can, but it is best to give Joe a dog of his own. Besides teaching him responsibility, he would bring the service dog everywhere and help him with his symptoms. Some skilled trainers can make it easier for service dogs to assist people with medical or mental health conditions. This way, you will not worry about Joe’s welfare all the time,” the psychiatrist explained.


Getting A Dog For Joe

Ever since Spot came into Joe’s life, he still had high and low episodes. However, what made things better was that the dog would bark whenever Joe tried to sneak out or would not move away from the couch for more than an hour or so. That’s Spot’s way of alerting us when something was up with Joe.

Another benefit of having a service dog was that he could calm down Joe wherever we went. It was explicitly helpful when Joe was at school, and we could not be there. The teachers had to call us in the past to pick up our son, but Spot was quick to distract him during those times.

Getting a dog for Joe turned out to be the best decision we ever made. It was right there on the top spot with therapy, to be honest.

Therapy For Siblings Of Bipolar Kids

During the first year that I provided therapy to bipolar kids, I had a very idealistic and businesslike approach. I said that I would only be accepting one client every hour and that my office would only be open from 9 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon. Then, I would not be taking calls after office hours from the parents. If they wanted to talk to me, they should book an appointment with my secretary.

The thing was, the young clients that sought my assistance often came with their parents and a sibling or two. They understood that most of the sessions were supposed to occur behind closed doors for confidentiality’s sake, but they still came as a family every time.


Since I often saw brothers and sisters of bipolar kids in the office, I was quick to think, “Oh, they must have an incredible bond.” After all, no matter how pretty or child-friendly my clinic was, it was still in a mental health facility. Child or not, no one genuinely wanted to be seen going in or out of that place in fear of their friends assuming that they were not right in the head.

I got an explanation one time when I could not help but overhear a couple of converse with their older daughter while waiting for their younger daughter’s therapy session to be over.

“Can you drive me to my friend’s house later?” the girl asked.

“Sorry, honey, but your sister has a group therapy to attend after this one,” the mother replied.

“All right, but can you take me to the mall tomorrow and go shopping?”


“Your dad can drive you to the mall, but I cannot go with you. You know that your sister doesn’t do well with massive crowds, and we cannot leave her alone at home,” the mother said.

The girl huffed. “Everything you do is for my sister’s sake. When will you ever think about me?”

I felt bad for the brothers and sisters of bipolar children in that instant. I used to believe that only the kids with mental health conditions needed much attention and were happy to get it from their families. However, I failed to see that their siblings were kids as well. Normal or not, they needed as much attention as anyone else. And since they could not consistently achieve that, it was understandable for them to get upset or even resent their bipolar siblings.

What Did I Do, You Might Ask?

Every time I would meet a client since that day, I would ask the parents to let me have a 15- or 30-minute session with their other kids. Many looked confused; others seemed offended as they pointed out that not all of their children needed mental help. I had to explain my observation to each of them.


Every time I would do the latter, understanding would settle on the parents’ faces. It was enough indication that they also knew the struggles of their other kids who had to live with their bipolar brother or sister. Sometimes, the mom or dad would even break down as they told me how guilty they were for caring for their bipolar child more.

Giving Therapy To The Siblings Of Bipolar Kids

I had spoken to a few kids about how they felt about having a bipolar sibling, and their answers somewhat varied. Some of them expressed anger and embarrassment for having a sister or brother with a mental disorder. Others felt scared, especially when their sibling was showing their daredevil side.

However, most of those kids showed real maturity by saying that they always looked after their siblings, regardless of whether their parents asked them. Among them was that girl I overheard complaining to her mom and dad. She told me she would always check on her sister at school in between classes to make sure she was okay.


“But no matter how much I care for my sister, I sometimes wish that she will go away so that I can live freely. I know that’s bad to say, but I feel that way whenever she’s throwing a fit of some sort,” the girl admitted shyly.

During our short therapy sessions, I explained to the children that being honest about their feelings – good or bad – was significant. Many adults turned out to have deep-seated childhood issues because they were unable to express themselves as kids. Still, I encouraged them to do it calmly, considering they knew that people with mental disorders were wired differently.

Final Thoughts

I continue to offer therapy to bipolar kids and their siblings up to this day. I have even leveled up and begun offering family counseling so that they can air out their differences in the safety of my office. It has seemed to help more families than I have initially imagined as the children who used to envy or get mad at their ill brother or sister began to understand them more.