Talking about Parental mental illness with a child
Updated: Oct 27, 2019
An excellent way to start to support your child, make them understand and answer any questions they have is to talk to him or her about your illness and your experiences.
Is it right to talk to your child about your mental illness?
Well, many parents who have difficulties with their mental health do wonder whether it is right to share this with their child. Maybe you're one of these parents. You may wonder whether your child has noticed your symptoms, what they might think about it, or perhaps they've not noticed anything at all, or that it is the wrong thing to do.
But on the other hand, studies have shown that communicating your mental health struggles to your child will help him/her to cope better. A/Professor Jane Sturges from Yale University in her book Health and Social Work argues that "Talking with (children) about mental illness and eliciting their feelings can help them adapt to stress and may in some cases prevent permanent emotional disturbance". It helps them to understand those changes they've observed in you and reduce their worry that they are to blame.
Ultimately the decision to speak with your child about what you are going through, is yours to make.
To make the right decision, you can ask yourself the following questions:
What are my concerns about speaking with my child?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of discussing my condition with my child?
Is now the right time to talk about it?
If we are do speak about it, what am I going to say?
Will I want someone else also to be involved?
Discussing this issue with your psychiatrist or psychologist might help you to make the right decision.
Getting ready to talk
Many parents understandably do not welcome the idea of talking to their children about their mental illness. They are uncertain of themselves and are unsure of what exactly what they want to share.
It might be best to ready yourself first, think about the challenges you've faced and your own understanding of what's going on for you. You can make this easier by first meeting with a psychologist, talking and creating a space to discuss how you might go about raising it with your child. You might want to write down what you are going to say. You can also think about how you've discussed your symptoms with other family members and questions that your child has raised in the past. Also consider your child's temperament, age and degree of understanding before speaking with them.
There are many resources online that you can look through for insight to assist you & your child in communicating effectively about mental illness.
Your child's understanding
Children are very perceptive and sensitive to what is going on with their parents and caregivers. They are keen observers and will make sense of what they observe and then come to their own conclusions.
When considering talking to your child, you could put yourself in their shoes and consider the situation from their viewpoint. What are those things that they noticed about your symptoms, and how might they make sense of them?
You can discuss this with your partner or any other person that you find supportive such as a family member, a friend or a psychologist. This is best done with someone who understands you and or your child well. As discussed above also think about your child's age and temperament, how they have responded during periods of your unwellness and your relationship with your child.