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If you are living with a mental health condition it can be difficult to know whether or not you should talk to your child about it. It’s common to feel conflicted. Would it help them to understand better? Would it open up dialogue for future important conversations? Or is it just better to not talk about it?

Experts from the American Academy of Adolescent and Child Psychiatry (AACAP), Psychcentral, and Children of Parents with a Mental Illness (COPMI) support the research that talking to your children is a good idea. It can lead to reduced confusion, alleviation of unnecessary fears, and can even contribute to developing resilience in young children. Here are some important guidelines that can help facilitate these conversations:

  1. Educate Yourself First: Before you can help your children understand what mental illness is and how it can impact a person or their family, it’s important that you have a full understanding yourself. It can also be helpful to find language or an analogy that would be easy for your children to understand. AACP uses the following analogy:“Many people get sick with a cold or the flu, but only a few get really sick with something serious like pneumonia. People who have a cold are usually able to do their normal activities. However, if they get pneumonia, they will have to take medicine and may have to go to the hospital. Similarly, feelings of sadness, anxiety, worry, irritability, or sleep problems are common for most people. However, when these feelings get very intense, last for a long period of time and begin to interfere with school, work, and relationships, it may be a sign of a mental illness that requires treatment.”
  2. Put Yourself In Your Child’s Shoes: AACP’s analogy brings us to the second important point: consider your child’s age and level of understanding when you decide how you will talk about your mental health condition. In an interview with PsychCentral, Ryan Howes, Ph.D, psychologist, writer and professor in Pasadena, California says, “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,” but having “a frank discussion about dad’s mood swings,” may be more appropriate for a teenager. COPMI offers some great information and points to consider with several different development stages. Click here to read more.
  3. Be Prepared for Questions: Kids are naturally curious so it’s not surprising that they may have questions about your mental health condition. Try to be open with them in your answers and try to avoid dismissing their concerns. Avoid using any language that may have a shameful connotation about mental health.
  4. Set Realistic Expectations of Yourself: It would be a lot of pressure to think you needed to tell your child everything he or she needs to know about mental illness in one sitting. Think of this as just the first in a number of conversations you’ll have with them as they grow up. There will be natural times when things will come up and you can talk further with them, with the solid foundation of your first conversation.

Talking to your child about your mental health condition can feel scary, but it is better that he or she hear it from you and not rely on misinformation or myths from others to make sense of what’s going on at home. Being open with your child is a huge step, and hopefully it will enable them to feel more open to sharing their own concerns with you as they get older.

Resources
Talking about mental illness with your child. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2015, from http://www.copmi.net.au/parents/helping-my-child-and-family/talking-about-mental-illness
Talking To Kids About Mental Illnesses. (2011, March 1). Retrieved July 31, 2015, from http://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/Facts_for_Families_Pages/Talking_To_Kids_About_Mental_Illnesses_84.aspx
Tartakovsky, M. (n.d.). Should You Tell Your Kids about Your Mental Illness? Retrieved July 31, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/12/30/should-you-tell-your-kids-about-your-mental-illness/
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