Being a mother and living with a mental illness, I get many parents asking me if and how they should talk to their kids about mental illness. When I tell people that yes, they should talk to their kids and be honest with them about their loved one with mental illness, many parents insist I am wrong. They assume kids can not handle learning about mental illness and that they will be harmed by being told the truth. Parents and family members want to hide diagnosis, hospitalizations, and suicides from their kids thinking that this protects them from something “scary” that they cannot possibly understand. However, our kids are much more intuitive than we think they are. If we are not honest with them, they will imagine worst case scenarios and be scared but they will not tell us they are scared because they think we do not want to talk about it. This is what creates fear and trauma.
To illustrate how to talk to our kids and how it helps them, read this post “Being Honest With Our Kids,” where I talk about helping our son during a particularly bad episode of my illness.
Here are 10 things kids living with someone with mental illness need to know:
1. Their loved one’s behavior is due to an illness, not anything the child did.
2. The child cannot make their loved one better, they can only help support them.
3. How they can help. Such as my son knows just sitting with me and watching a movie can help me feel less depressed so he will invite me to watch something fun with him.
4. Mental illness is not contagious.
5. Mental illness is not something they are destined to get or something that they need to fear.
6. Awesome things about mental illness. Seriously. There are many great qualities my son loves about me that are part of my illness. This helps take away the idea that mental illness is a scary illness.
7. Who can help them. Kids need to know phone numbers of who (friends, family, neighbors) they can call if they are worried about their loved one or their own safety. It is always good to have a neighbor they can go to if they need immediate help. (This is also good for all emergencies like a fire.)
8. How and when to dial 911. When I started a new medication that made me faint, we had to tell our son about the possibility of me fainting and that if this were to happen he should dial 911.
9. That they are never required to remain somewhere or with someone that they feel unsafe with.
10. How you are treating your illness. This gives them a sense of security that their family is not alone.
Here are 5 tips for talking to a child about mental illness:
1. Keep their age in mind. As a toddler we told our son “Mommy’s brain gets sick sometimes. Sometimes she needs to go to the doctor more or we need to take care of her, like we do when you have a cold.” Even as a toddler, he knew people who had committed suicide and rather than hide that, which told him that the person died from an illness in their brain. This is accurate. As he got older he learned that dying from mental illness can mean a person kills themselves and so we talked a lot about my treatment plan and how we work to reduce that risk for me.
2. Simple is better. Just acknowledging that I was sick was enough for our son to feel safe that we were taking care of things and none of this was his fault. Following keeping it simple…
3. Let the child guide the conversation so that they always know they can ask questions. This way they get the information they need, no more, no less.
4. Know a good therapist for children that your kid sees once in a while for a check in. This way the child knows someone so if the family ever becomes unstable or needs more help, then they already know the professional who will be directly helping them.
5. Use resources that are accessible to them.
Here are some positive resources to help have discussions with your kids on understanding people with different kinds of minds:
MOVIE: Phoebe in Wonderland
Read here to see how this movie facilitated a discussion about messages about brain differences, family dynamics, and acceptance between my son and me. It’s a great movie about a little girl with Tourette’s and how her family, school, and friends deal with it.
MOVIE: Temple Grandin
This is one of our son’s favorite movies. It is about Temple Grandin’s life and living with autism. It has led to many discussion about different kinds of minds as well as him going to see her speak when she came to our town last year.
BOOK: Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry by Bebe Moore Campbell.
Read my review here. This is a children’s book about a girl who’s mother has bipolar disorder.
BOOK: Eli the Bipolar Bear by Sharon Bracken
Great, sweet book about a little bear with bipolar disorder. It explains how it is treated and really makes kids much more comfortable with the illness.
BOOK: Why Did Grandma Put Her Underwear in the Refrigerator? By Max Wallack.
Read my review here. Amazing book explaining Alzheimer’s/dementia to children. Written by a 17 year old who lived with his grandmother with Alzheimer’s since he was a very young child. Really, one of the best books out there. Even adults should have it for themselves.