How to Talk to Your Kids About Mental Illness

Okay, folks…before I get too far into this, it bears mentioning that I am (obviously) not a professional! In all of this, I can only speak from personal experience so please take all of the advice given here as it’s meant: from a friend to a friend.  Now that all of that is out of the way, let’s get to it!

Talking to your kids about health issues is never easy.  We struggle with what to say, how to say it, and when.  How much should we share? Do they really need to know the details? When should we tell them something is wrong? As soon as we learn about it? After we’ve had time to process it ourselves?

The truth is, only you can really know the answer to these questions.  You know your children better than anyone and so you will know what information they can handle and how best to share it.  Still, there are some things that remain consistent no matter the kid, and there are some things that I’ve learned along the way, too.  That’s what I’m here to share!

General Bits of Wisdom

1. Always be honest.

When you’re talking to your kids, whether about mental illness or almost anything else, it’s important to be as honest as possible.  When it comes to something as serious as health issues, it’s especially critical to be honest.  This is going to affect your children, no matter what happens. You need to be open with them about what to expect, what is happening, and what they can do.  If you don’t, they’ll figure it out anyway and you will likely damage your relationship and trust with them.

2. Keep that info age appropriate.

Date time with EileenEveryone is different.  My 10-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son get the same information, but I present it differently based on their ability to understand what’s going on.  My daughter knows enough to understand when I say I’m severely depressed. My son, on the other hand, doesn’t understand much more than “Mommy’s really sad.”  Both are completely honest in their own way, but also within grasp of the kiddos.

3. Talk to them as soon as you can.

Seriously. You never know when things might change, and they need to be prepared. I know that you may not be ready right away, and that’s alright, but until you talk to them they are only living based on what they can imagine.

4. Take your time.

This is not a sprint.  You will likely have this conversation again and again, so take the time to think about what you’re saying and how you’re going to say it. Introduce the topic, come back to it later, go at their pace.  Some kids are totally okay with sitting and listening to a whole lesson about what’s happening, but my littlest would totally run away.  Heck, even the 10-year-old will only stay put for about 10 minutes.

5.  Explain what this illness means for the sick person as well as what it means for your kids.

Your kids are going to see this first hand and if you have the sort of illness that has very visible symptoms, that can be pretty frightening if they don’t know what to expect. Take the time to tell them what the illness looks like. In my case, for example, it means there are days in which I’m really cranky and need personal space and quiet. I explained that on those days, I may need to spend time in my room until I feel better.  Or, it may mean that I ask for extra hugs. We’ve also talked about how my anxiety makes me sensitive to textures, so my daughter helps on those days by giving me the smooth handled spoons at dinner. Which brings me to the next tip…

6. Let them know how (if) they can help!

Hair tribble
A 6-year-old Eileen “helping” clean up after my haircut.

It’s so hard to feel powerless when someone you love is hurting, especially when you’re a kid.  Giving them things they can do to help gives them the power to respond and pride that they are caring for someone they love.  It may be nothing more than giving a hug (or getting the smooth spoons), but it’s a big thing for them.  So try to think of something they can do when you’re struggling, even if it may not help.  To that end, also make sure they know that what they do probably won’t fix what’s going on, but it means a lot that they want to help.

Why do our kids need to hear this? – A Story

Now for the hard truth, learned from personal experience…

When I was a kid, my grandfather had a heart attack that put him in the hospital.  I always knew he had heart problems and had even had a triple bypass (not that I had any clue what that was), but when he went back to the hospital I was understandably scared.  They told me he needed surgery again, that the success rate for a second surgery wasn’t very high for someone like him, but everyone had hope.

I asked about him almost every day.  I asked how he was doing (he’s alright), when I’d get to see him (in a bit, he’s still hooked up to machines and it might scare you), and if he was getting better (every day!).  I knew everyone was scared, but no one wanted to talk about it. The day he died, my dad tore out of the apartment for the hospital.  I asked about Grandpa that morning and got the same answers as before, but I knew then it was a lie.

To this day, I have no idea why they didn’t tell me what was going on.  As an adult, I can guess. Maybe they were waiting for things to change or they hoped if they said it enough, that he’d get better. Maybe they just didn’t want to think about it. Whatever the reason, I learned something very important that day…

I couldn’t trust them anymore.

In my world, that morning my grandfather was getting better and he’d be home soon, but that night, he was gone.

The moral of the story

Baby’s first christmas!

No matter how you do it, it’s critical you talk to your kids about your mental illness. This is something that will affect both of you and how you handle it now will set the tone for your relationship now and as they grow up. Parenting is hard work, but when you’re a parent with a chronic mental illness, it gets extremely hard.  Making sure your family is educated goes a long way to keeping everyone healthy.

And, as hard as it is to hear, when we have a mental illness, chances are good they will, too.  Take the time. Teach them now. You will both be better for it.



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