Talking to Your Children About Mental Illness
If you’re a parent with a mental illness, or if someone in your family is mentally ill, you may struggle with how to talk about it with your children. You may feel embarrassed or even ashamed about your disease.
Even thought it can be difficult, it’s important to create a safe space for kids to hear and ask questions about the illness that affects you or your partner.
Here are five tips to help you get started.
- Keep the conversation age appropriate. A six year old may need to know that sometimes dad gets really sad, but they don’t need to know the details of his bipolar disorder. A 16 year old could benefit from more detailed information about the parent’s symptoms and treatment. Both need to understand that their parent’s sadness is not their fault.
- Don’t simply wait for your child to bring up their questions or concerns. Kids are usually well aware that something is going on when a parent has a mental illness. Even casually noting that you’re seeing your therapist on Monday may be enough to create a safe space for a child to talk about their fears. Talking about mental illness can happen casually, in the car or when watching TV. Look for opportunities to introduce the topic in low-key manner.
- Allow them to ask questions, and answer as honestly as possible. There may be some things you feel are off-limits or too private to discuss. It’s okay to tell your child this. If you don’t know the answer to a particular question, try to find out. Teenagers may wonder if they will develop mental illness as they get older, or worry about the safety of the adults who care for them. This is a good opportunity to talk about early signs of depression or mania or anxiety, and mention how you are taking care of yourself.
- Normalize their experience. Children naturally worry about their parents and caregivers. They may feel like no one else understands what it’s like to have a parent with a mental illness. The reality is that many people, old and young, are mentally ill. Chances are, some of their friends have parents with a mood disorder or anxiety.
- Help them find support. Check out what resources are available in your community. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) is a great place to start. Many kids benefit from having a counselor to talk to.
Children are highly aware of what is going on around them, even if they don’t quite understand it all. If a parent’s mental illness is shrouded in secrecy, kids will learn to associate mental illness with shame. But when depression is talked about as openly as diabetes, or when a dad with schizophrenia feels comfortable asking his daughter how she feels about his illness, stigmatization is decreased, and kids feel safer.
Opening up about mental illness can also help kids feel comfortable talking about their own mental health. A 13 year old who hears the term depression talked about in an open way is more likely to tell her mom that she feels depressed than if her only knowledge of depression came from TV ads.
As a parent, you are your children’s first and most important teacher. How you handle your mental illness will set the stage for how they will think of their own thoughts and feelings, and those of the people around them.
photo from Shutterstock
Harmon, J. (2013). Talking to Your Children About Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 7, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/your-life/2013/01/talking-to-your-children-about-mental-illness/