Today’s post is Part 2 on how to help kids who have a parent with a mental illness. In Part 1, we discussed how kids think about and react to having an ill parent. This post will address how to talk with kids when their Mom or Dad has a mental illness, and provide helpful resources.
Talking with kids about mental illness
Experts recommend that you address these main topics with kids when Mom or Dad have a mental illness:
- What is it?, Will I get it?, and Will Mom/Dad get better?: Obviously, this will take a little research on your part ahead of time so that you can accurately answer your child’s questions. It is okay to say, “I don’t know, but I will find out,” instead of lying, stretching the truth, or ignoring your child’s question if you aren’t sure of the answer. See the next topic for more on that…
- Do not promise that Mom or Dad will get better: Mental illnesses can resolve and never return, but that tends to be the exception to the rule. Most people who develop an illness have ebbs and flows in its severity, or experience a relapse when under stress. By “promising” your child that the other parent will get better, your child will be disappointed when that does not happen, and mistrust what you are telling them in the future.
- Reassure the children that they are not to blame for the illness: Some children will think that their behavior or personality characteristics are the reason Mom or Dad now has this illness. Be sure to empathize that nothing the child did was the reason the illness developed. I would also caution against telling your child that they need to act a certain way now that their parent does have the illness, such as, “You need to get good grades so Mommy is happy,” or “Daddy will feel better if you don’t cry and stay quiet,” because that sets unrealistic expectations for the child, especially since those suggestions won’t help the illness.
- Help your child find support from other adults, both from within the family and within the child’s community: Your child still needs to be a child, and having other caring adults who can take them out of the house and do activities with them can serve as a relief, as well as a protective buffer. Your child may not feel comfortable coming to you with their feelings about the ill parent, but they might be willing to open up to another “safe” adult.
- Explain to your child that some people may act differently when they see Mom/Dad or find out about the illness: Stigma around mental illness doesn’t just happen among adults. Kids can be terribly cruel, and they use words like “crazy” to describe behaviors that come with mental illness. Encourage your child to tell you if they hear others saying mean or hurtful things. You may also consider alerting your child’s teacher/school counselor to what is happening at home so that they can be on the lookout for changes in behavior in your child.
Books for young children:
Why Are You So Sad? A Child’s Book About Parental Depression. (2002). B Andrews.
Wishing Wellness: A Workbook for Children of Parents with Mental Illness. (2006). L.A. Clarke.
Why is Mommy Sad? A Child’s Guide to Parental Depression. (1996). P. Chan.
Sad Days, Glad Days. (1995). D. Hamilton.
The Bipolar Bear Family: When a Parent Has Bipolar Disorder. (2006). A. Holloway.
Books for teens:
I could not find any books specifically for a teenaged audience on the topic of having a parent with a mental illness. If you know of one that is age-appropriate, in print, and easily available to purchase, please submit a comment with the title and author!
Children of Parents with a Mental Illness (this one takes a while to load, so be patient!)