How to Talk To Your Kids About Mental Illness

“Mom, are you crazy?” my eight-year-old son, Ryan, 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.

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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 Ryan’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.