Some simple actions can make a big difference to a child when their parent is unwell.
When a parent is unwell, having another family member or trusted family friend they can rely on can really help a child.
Children and young people cope better during a crisis if:
they understand what is happening
they know they are not to blame
their routines continue (such as school and after-school activities)
they know who will look after them if their parent cannot (and how they will stay connected with their parent)
they have a reliable adult to talk to about their feelings.
Talking to children
Talking provides an opportunity to relieve fears and anxieties and stops children and young people from filling in gaps with the wrong information.
Ideally, and wherever possible, it is important to ask the parent (or their partner) what particular things they might want you to communicate to their children when they are unwell – so there are no mixed messages.
It can also be beneficial to do a little homework before approaching a discussion about mental illness with a child. Find out about the effects of mental illness on a parent's behaviour, as well as their treatment and support options. Consider what the parent wants to share if this has been discussed. Ultimately, when you are knowledgeable about the topic you will feel more prepared and confident about talking with a child. (A good self-education starting point is this page about mental illness, warning signs and symptoms.)
What children might ask
Encourage children to ask questions and remember to be honest about what you know and don't know. Reassure them that you will find out answers to their questions if you don't know – and follow through.
Children will likely have different questions as circumstances change or as information 'sinks in'. Prepare yourself to answer questions such as the below:
Why is mum/dad acting the way they do?
Why do they (cry/sleep a lot/not listen...)
What is a mental illness?
Who can get it? (and how it's diagnosed)
What causes it - and will I catch it?
What help is there?
So what do I say?
You'll need to consider the young person's age and ability to understand information. Even very young children can gain some understanding of what's going on, if told 'mummy's not well, you've done nothing wrong and she's getting help so she can get better.'
Don't expect to have all the answers, but being prepared helps. Be honest, but positive, hopeful and reassuring. Remember that one discussion is never enough – a real understanding takes time and a child's questions and need for information change as they grow.
Encourage them to ask questions or raise concerns whenever they want - and then be there for them when they need it.
Remember to tell kids and young people they can call 24-hours-a-day to speak to people anonymously and for free at Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.
COPMI have prepared information for parents on speaking to children of different age groups about their mental illness. Whilst these are targeted to parents, family members and friends can also benefit from the advice.
Encourage children to access other social supports and participate in activities in the community. Offer to help by taking them to child care or supporting them to get to a regular activity. Support opportunities that allow them to socialise with other kids.
Use resources to help
Remember to tell children about Kids Helpline, a non-judgemental, anonymous service which offers immediate support to young kids through to young adults. Call 1800 55 1800 for free counselling, even from mobiles.
You can also send them to the Kids & young people section of this website for links to helpful information specifically for their age group.
Concern about safety
If you're concerned about a child's safety, wherever possible discuss your concerns with their parent. Make opportunities for the child to spend time with a trusted family member or friend, who they can talk to and build connections with.
Support the child to identify people they can contact if things are getting difficult at home.
If there is any immediate risk to the safety of a child please contact Emergency Services on '000'.
Growing up in a large regional centre of New South Wales with Mum who was...unpredictable, funny, sometimes in bed for days on end, compassionate, sometimes wildly violent, beautiful, sometimes dirty and unwashed, engaging, sometimes rude and disagreeable in public... was a tough gig for me as a kid who just wanted to fit in and be 'normal'. Brooke, adult child of a parent with a mental illness