Home » Blog » Helping Children Cope When a Loved One Suffers from Mental Illness

Helping Children Cope When a Loved One Suffers from Mental Illness

Childhood GirlsI have a loved one that suffers with severe mental illness. He’s a brilliant, beautiful, creative person who told spellbinding, captivating stories of far away places and taught me to not be afraid of the dark. But just as quick and easy as flicking a light switch on and off, our lives changed from moment to moment.

As a child I didn’t understand. I remember thinking everyone’s home was just like mine… a place where the stairs turned into an escalator only for the person who knew the magic word and where the cupboards were locked at night to keep out the mischief-making fairies.

It wasn’t until I was around 7 years old that I realized how different I was from other kids my age. I remember one school recess curiously approaching a bunch of older kids that had gathered on the outskirts of the playground. They stood staring paralyzed while they watched a frantic classmate furiously punching his fists into a tree trunk. I parted my way through the group towards the tree and stood by him quietly until he finished, pulling a crumbled napkin out of my paper bag lunch and offering it up for his bloodied knuckles. All eyes shifted between me and bloodied fists boy.

I walked away feeling icky — shamed, judged, sad and strange. But even bigger than that was a nagging voice in my head wondering why I thought it was perfectly normal to beat a tree until your knuckles bled.

Children make sense of their world in a variety of ways. When their world is outside the norm (and there are endless ways in which this can be the case), often magical thinking becomes a developmentally appropriate coping skill.

Based on the Family Support Group Guidelines for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), I created the following list that I share with many of my young clients. It’s an effort to address, acknowledge and normalize some of the things children long to hear if they have a loved one that is suffering with mental illness.

A cautionary note just as I tell my young clients: watch out for the “NOT”s. They’re slippery little things and if not tied tightly, they slip away and leave you feeling in knots.

My Loved One Suffers with Mental Illness

  1. I am NOT alone…1 in 4 people suffer with a mental illness and there are a lot of people that love them.
  2. I have A LOT of questions…what’s going on? why is this happening to me? why is this happening to my loved one? how can I make my loved one better? will I be like my loved one some day?
  3. I am NOT to blame. It is NOT my fault.
  4. My loved one LOVES me.
  5. Being a kids means I have needs and they are important.
  6. I have protectors I can talk to.
  7. I CANNOT fix my loved one, but I can SUPPORT them in small, specific ways like: cleaning my room, going to school, eating healthy food, taking care of myself, using my words, talking about my feelings.
  8. I hold lots of hope ’cause it’s hard sometimes but it’s great sometimes too.
Helping Children Cope When a Loved One Suffers from Mental Illness

Jennifer Couture, LMFT

Jennifer Couture, LMFT 90337 is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist that provides psychotherapy for children and their families, as well as loved ones of those suffering with mental illness. Using mindfulness as a foundation, Jennifer provides a safe supportive space of hope and healing. For more information, please visit

One comment: View Comments / Leave a Comment
APA Reference
Couture, J. (2018). Helping Children Cope When a Loved One Suffers from Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 19 Oct 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.