How to Talk To Your Kids About Mental Illness

“Mom, are you crazy?” my eight-year-old son, Nolan, asked after reading over my shoulder while I worked on my book. My memoir, Committed, is about my stay in a mental hospital one week after Nolan’s birth, and the page he read demonstrated a particularly erratic behavior from me.

talking.jpg

Credit to flickr.com user Evan Long. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

“No, honey,” I said. My heart sank. I was not ready to have this conversation yet, but Nolan’s question made me think otherwise. “I do have bipolar disorder, which is a mental illness.”

“What’s bipolar disorder?” he said.

“Bipolar disorder is when I sometimes feel depressed–like nothing in the world matters anymore,” I said, patting him on the arm. “But it also means I feel super energetic sometimes, and can’t control myself very well.”

“Will I get it?” he said, his eyes widening.

“I don’t know,” I said. “You might. It comes when you’re a teenager or young adult. But there are medications available to help manage it, so don’t worry.”

“Oh,” he said, giving me a hug. “I’m sorry you have bipolar disorder, Mama.”

And that was that.  The dreaded conversation–the start of many–was over.

Arming your kids with age-appropriate information about your mental illness can help them feel secure. If you talk to them about your disorder, they will know what to expect when you have a down–or up–day. They’ll also learn to separate you from your illness, and from any negative feelings that might occur. If you don’t talk to then, they’ll invariably draw their own conclusions, which can make them feel unsure about you and their position in the world.

Here are some tips for talking about mental illness with your kids.

1. Keep it Simple

Children only need to know the basics of mental illness: it’s not contagious, they are not destined to have a disorder, there are treatments available, etc. Another important factor that goes into talking about mental disorders with your kids is stressing that it’s not their fault. They can’t make their parent better, nor should they try. They can only support their mother 0r father by checking in on them, watching movies with them, and generally being their awesome selves.

2. Reassure Them

Explain to your children if they ask that they might get your disorder, but reassure them that there are treatments available and that you’re getting help yourself, if you are. Tell your kids that you still love them, and no amount of mental illness will change that.

3. Know Your Child’s Maturity Level

All kids are different, and mature at different rates. Preschoolers will only want very basic information about why you’re sad. Preteens will want more information, so give them as much as you think they can handle. Teenagers will often turn to their friends when seeking information about things that bother them, so make sure they’re well-informed.

4. Address Their Fears

Ask your children if they have any worries now that you’ve brought up the topic. Reassure them that their needs will be met and that you’re not going anywhere. Repeat information if they appear confused. It may be helpful to bring their fears up with a mental health professional, so you can make a plan to address them.

5. Make Yourself Available

Make sure you don’t end the conversation there. Children will have questions as they grow, and it’s important that you be available to answer them. Explain to your kids that they are always welcome to ask questions of you about this topic.

Talking with your kids about mental illness can be tough. But if you’re open to it, they’ll appreciate your candor and feel more secure knowing what’s going on with their parent.

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About Cassandra Stout

Freelance writer Cassandra Stout blogs at The Bipolar Parent, a comprehensive resource for parents with mental illnesses. She is currently working on Committed, her forthcoming memoir detailing her time spent in a mental hospital while separated from her husband and newborn. Cassandra holds degrees from the University of Arizona in Creative Writing and Journalism, and is a member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association. She balances her literary work with raising her children, feeding her cat, and managing her bipolar disorder.
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12 Responses to How to Talk To Your Kids About Mental Illness

  1. dyane says:

    I related to this post so much, Cass!

    I remember a writer/teacher in my “moms with bipolar” support group that I ran. She was so awesome that I had hoped we’d become friends. She was humble, i.e. she downplayed that her essay was published in the infamous New York Times “Modern Love” column.

    She had a daughter the same age as mine (10 at the time) and the mom couldn’t explain to her girl that she had bipolar disorder although it was apparent for various reasons that it was time to have that discussion.

    I don’t mean to sound so judgemental 😦 Of course she’d have to talk to her child eventually, but I was surprised that someone so accomplished with words & communication didn’t open up to her questioning child about something so important.

    I had a very similar conversation as the one you had with your son. It was with my younger daughter, and our talk echoed the exchange I had with my father years ago.

    How I wish a cure was found so these talks no longer would have to take place!
    XoXo

    • Oh, Dyane, that story about the reluctant mother breaks my heart! I hope she was able to finally talk to her daughter. I’m glad you have had that conversation with yours, though you’re right–I, too, wish that we didn’t have to have these conversations at all! Thanks for reading and your lovely comments.

  2. Oh my goodness, what a difficult conversation! It’s sounds like you handled it like a pro, though. Thank you for sharing your experience and advice for handling this when the rest of us have to have this conversation.

  3. ❤️❤️I agree with everything you wrote here. I stay very open and simple with my gang. Use proper terms but explain what it means with lots of emphasis on coping. I focus on helping them identify their own feelings. I can tell when they’re anxious or irritable, etc and I help them
    Cope. To myself, I’ve been trying to focus on the fact that my experience gives them a lot of ammo in coping skills. My boys both have ADHD so they deal with similar struggles! ❤️ great post and I look forward to reading more!

  4. Bipolar Mom says:

    I have already been forced to have this discussion at a very high level with my 4 year old. He asked why I take medicine every day and if I was really sick. He was scared so I explained that it keeps me healthy and told him I had bipolar disorder. It’s a very hard thing to do. I really like what you have laid out here. It would have been helpful when he first asked, but I think I still can get use out of it.

    • Oh, wow, he’s four and he asked you those questions? I’m so sorry that you had to have that discussion so early! It is a hard thing to do. But I’m glad you were able to reassure him. I do hope the post helps. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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