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?
Here are some expert tips to help.
- Talk to your mental health provider. Most parents don’t know what to say to their kids. That’s not surprising, considering that mental illness is hard enough to grasp for adults. Sherman suggested asking your mental health provider about the best ways to approach your child.
- Strike a balance. According to Howes, there’s a fine balance between revealing the truth to your kids and overwhelming them. He said that it’s important “to prevent passing on any shameful connotation of mental illness, so it should be discussed openly (as is age appropriate) and without judgment.”
- Take age and maturity into account. How you talk to your kids will largely depend on their age and maturity level. “It might be appropriate to tell a young child that mommy isn’t feeling well and that she’d love to come to the park but needs to rest,” Howes said. He also suggested reading the book Wishing Wellness: A Workbook for Children of Parents with Mental Illness with your child. For teens who are mature, having “a frank discussion and literature about dad’s mood swings,” may be appropriate. Sherman has co-written a book specifically for teens of parents with mental illness called I’m Not Alone: A Teen’s Guide to Living with a Parent Who Has a Mental Illness.
- Be open to their questions. Your kids may have a variety of questions, especially as they get older, Sherman said. Teens may fear that they’ll also struggle with mental illness. Younger kids may ask if they caused the illness and wonder how they can fix it. “There’s a range of fairly common questions that can be addressed in a developmentally appropriate way,” said Joanne Nicholson, Ph.D, a psychologist who directs the Child and Family Research Core of the University of Massachusetts Medical School Center for Mental Health Services Research.Avoid dismissing your kids’ concerns, and again, prepare your talk with a mental health professional, who can help you answer these common questions.
- See your talk as a learning opportunity. “It’s important for parents with mental illness to know they have a special opportunity to teach their kids one of life’s most important lessons: Everyone has their baggage,” Howes said. “For mentally ill parents, their baggage just happens to have a diagnosis and a treatment plan. It’s not so important what the baggage is, but how it’s handled.”“Give children the language for talking about mental health, feelings, emotional wellbeing and mood,” Nicholson said. Help them understand that mental health is a vital “part of health, wellbeing and family life,” she said.Stress to your kids the importance of taking good care of themselves, Sherman said. Talk to them about wellness, sleep, exercise and nutrition. If they’re older, you can talk about the red flags of mental illness, as well.
- Be reassuring. “Kids may become preoccupied with worry about their parents’ wellbeing or their own future mental health in the case of heritable illness,” Howes said. Reassure your kids that you love them, that you’re getting help, and “that someone will always be there to meet their needs,” he said.
- Consider counseling for your kids. “Counseling can help educate, build coping skills and give kids another venue for emotional support,” Howes said.
When thinking about your mental illness in general, consider this, as Howes pointed out: “This may be the best gift you give your kids: an example of facing challenges and limitations with honesty and courage. People who persevere despite great adversity deserve our highest respect — we call these people heroes.”