Talking about parental mental illness with teenagers
Updated: Oct 26, 2019
Speaking with a young person about your mental illness as a parent would be confronting for most people.
A starting point to an open conversation with teenagers about mental health is having an understanding of one's symptoms and how it can present to others.
An understanding of your mental health will allow you to know how it affects your moods, behaviour, and emotions. This will allow you to better understand the impacts on your family.
Consider taking a moment to reflect on your symptoms and the behaviour that your child sees. As a parent, you might worry about your child’s expectations or their understanding of mental illness. From here parents may wonder how their child will respond and the effects it has on them.
Understanding the observations and experiences of your teenager
Teenagers pick up on your behaviours and emotions and react to them in their own way. Relationships between parents and teenagers are invariably complex. Young people have a different understanding of the world to adults. As they grow older they are trying to make sense of their changing relationships with their parents, their friends and the world around them. Your health and wellbeing impacts upon your behaviour, which then in turn impacts on your children.
Teenagers usually worry about themselves, about their parents, their parent’s illness and the impact that this has on their relationship with you. They may want to understand your diagnosis and whether you will get better or not. Some may also fear whether your condition will affect their mental health. They may want to know the right way to tell others about your illness. They might feel guilty, embarrassed, searched about it on Google or raised it with their teachers.
Here are some questions you should consider:
What way would your behaviour impact your child?
More specifically what impact would your behaviours and symptoms have on your relationship with your child?
Which behaviours do they find most challenging?
What impact might this have on their relationship with friends, their study or work?
Do they have any fears about their own mental health?
Would your behaviours and symptoms have any effect on the decisions they make?
Before talking to your teen…
Deciding whether to have a discussion with your child about your mental health is an important decision to make. Take a moment to think about your teenager’s personality, how they react to health concerns. Also is this the right time to speak with them about your mental health. Have they had challenges with their own mental health?
This conversations hopefully will give your child a better understanding of your experiences. They'll be able to make better sense of what’s happenings for you. If your child does not understand what’s going on, he or she may worry, feel guilty or embarrassed. They might think that they are responsible for what’s happening, and be worried about your safety and health.
Discussing with your child mental illness and the impacts it has on the family will likely:
Firstly, help your child to understand that there is nothing wrong with talking about mental illness.
Feel encouraged to ask questions and check-in with you on how you are doing.
Help them approach you comfortably when they are overwhelmed or worried.
Strengthen the relationship between you and your teenager.
Other adults can help explain your mental illness to your teenage child, could you involve a partner, grandparents or a friend. Consider arranging a session with a psychologist or a mental health clinician to facilitate a discussion. Tell them what you’ve shared with your child and what you’d like to discuss with your teenagers.
Young people have access to information, such as from social media, friends, and television. This information varies in reliability and may not always tally your experiences of having a mental illness. Consider sources of your information your teenager may turn to and their experiences both personally and through others about mental illness.
Have the conversation when you are both calm and relaxed.
Share information about your symptoms, your experience and recovery journey. Consider speaking about what has helped and what hasn’t in the past.
Be open to questions from your child.
Your teenager may feel more comfortable conversing whilst in the midst of another activity. So, consider starting the conversation while you are going for a walk or in the midst of another activity.
Create other avenues your children can turn to for information; such as a psychology and counselling session for them or speaking to a trusted adult.
Check-in with your child following the initial discussion to see how they are going.
These discussions can short, but it’s something your child will think about after and needs to be taken seriously. Hopefully, this conversation will lead to more open communication between you and child. With this, you can build a better-shared understanding over time. We encourage you to discuss with your health professional how you would go about talking about your mental illness with your children before you have the conversation.