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Should You Tell Your Kids about Your Mental Illness?

By Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.
Associate Editor

Should You Tell Your Kids about Your Mental Illness?Parents with a mental illness typically wonder whether it’s best to disclose their diagnosis to their kids. On the one hand, you want to be open and honest. On the other hand, you may think that not saying anything protects your child. A parent’s natural instinct to want to shield your child from any confusion or concern. However, according to research, not telling your child can actually have the opposite effect.

Research shows that if parents don’t tell children about their mental illness, children develop misinformation and worries which can be worse than the reality, said Michelle D. Sherman, Ph.D, clinical psychologist and director of the Family Mental Health Program at the Oklahoma City Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Later, these kids also report feeling resentment toward their parents for keeping them in the dark.

“It isn’t really a question of if you should tell them, but what and when,” said Ryan Howes, Ph.D, psychologist, writer and professor in Pasadena, California.

“We all know kids are incredibly perceptive — if there’s something going on, they’ll know.” Information decreases kids’ confusion, said Sherman, who’s also a professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

So how do you broach the topic with your kids?

4 Comments to
Should You Tell Your Kids about Your Mental Illness?

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  1. Bebe Moore Campbell also wrote a great book for kids: Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry.

  2. Just as you would tell your children if you had Cancer or a heart problem, you should tell them about your mental health condition. They are definitely going to find out from a young age; children are very perceptive. Plus they’ll probably overhear relatives talking about it or you talking about it with your spouse. If they don’t have the complete information (in an age appropiate way), their imagination will fill in the gaps and they may think you are very sick and going to die or will be carted off to a psych hospital! Or think whatever you have is contagious. It’s best that they have some information and be reassured that you are getting help for your problem and that doctors and therapists are looking out for you.

    However, one thing to keep in mind is that a young child WILL tell others. They have a hard time keeping secrets and showing discretion in disclosing information So I wouldn’t tell anything to your 4 year old that you wouldn’t be ok with them telling their close friend’s parents, teacher or babysitter.

    Also, if you have a serious mental problem, then its a good idea to have your children checked out too. I wouldn’t be too paranoid, but maybe see if their pediatrician can evaluate their mental health at every appointment. Definitely get them help sooner whether then later, if a problem does arise. And of course, try your best to be open about feelings and worries and teach your child healthy ways to cope with them, so that they will be more likely to go to you their emotions get out of control.

  3. Thank you very much for your article. As a father of four and living with mental illness but for a number years was on controlled it is refreshing to get the advice that your post.

    I have always been very open with my children about my disorder and about my medications I take to help my disorders. for a while there were always asking if I took my happy pills… I think it’s very important to the children understand that it’s not their fault when mommy or daddy gets upset due to episodic issues with regards to a mental health issue.

    Although I recommend talking to children at their level. I make sure as a parent that I take responsibility for my actions. I also make sure that they understand my actions or what I said or did was inappropriate.

    I’m about to print out your tips in your post so that I can review them with my wife. Thank you

  4. This is all well and good but if a parent does not recognise they have a mental illness (e.g. those with borderline personality disorder) it is very hard to tell the children, especially if their parents are no longer together.

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