Starting the conversation

Family talking together outside

If you have decided to talk with your child about your mental illness, there are different ways to approach a discussion and different times that might be best for you and your family

It can be good to think about where and when you want to have the conversation. It should be at a time that you and your child feel safe and comfortable and preferably where you won't be disturbed.

For some families this might be story time. For others, it's when you're driving in the car or over dinner. Reflect on times that might work best for your family, and note the points below.

We talked while I was driving Sam to soccer. He could just listen and didn't have to make eye contact, and I said we could talk more later if he liked. He said that would be good. So the first 'go' was good I think.
Doug, SA parent

Your child's need for information will change as they grow

These changes may come from new experiences that relate to mental illness or to a desire to know more as they get older. For this reason, it's helpful to think about the idea of starting with an initial discussion that will lead to other talks in an ongoing way over time.

During these discussions, your child is likely to ask about why you became unwell, how you were diagnosed, if mental illness can be caught or passed on and what help you're getting. Be prepared to talk about your treatment plan - and be positive. Children are often pleased to learn that you are getting help and are safe, and relieved that it's not their fault.

You might consider preparing the talk with your mental health professional beforehand. They can help you to think about the questions that might come up and how you could respond. 

See also the links at the bottom of this page to information about talking to children of different age groups.

Dad talks to two children at his feetTopics you can start with

It can be helpful for you to think about the topics you may or may not feel comfortable talking about with your child.

Some things to reflect on include:

  • What I am comfortable/ prepared to talk about with my child? (e.g. how I’ve been acting lately)

  • What I am not sure about bringing up or talking about with my child? (E.g. the arguments and conflict that we have been experiencing as parents)

  • What I am not comfortable to talk about with my child? (E.g. the traumatic events I experienced when I was younger that I think contributed to my mental illness).

You might consider discussing your ideas with a trusted partner, family member, friend or a mental health professional who can help you to think about what you could say or not say.

Tips on what to say

  • Discuss what's happening to you and how it affects you. Remember there's no need to share everything (you can decide how much to tell your child). Talking through what to say with your partner, a good friend or your mental health professional can be helpful.
  • Consider your child's age and ability to understand the information you give them to ensure they feel relaxed and can understand the conversation.
  • Think about the language you use. Medical explanations for mental illness that are simple for your child to understand offer a good opportunity to compare mental illness with phyiscal illness (and help to fight stigma).
  • Be clear that it is not their fault and it's not their responsbility to make you feel better.
  • Ask about their fears and worries and then make plans to address them. It can help to discuss these with your mental health professional.
  • Be reassuring and remind your child that you care about them and are getting help. It's imortant that your child knows that there is a plan and that you're trying to make sure their needs will be met.
  • Let your child know that you're there to answer their questions at any time and that there will be opportunities for more discussions over time.

Thinking about questions and answers

Now that you have reflected on what your child may have noticed and what you feel comfortable talking about, you can think about the initial information you intend to share with your child.

You might like to consider these questions they might ask you and how you'll answer them.

Dad and his son talking outside on a bench

Keeping the conversation going

If your family is not used to talking together, it might take time for them to develop the skills and feel comfortable with it. Although discussions might be short, their meaning is very important. Often the first discussion is the most daunting, but leads to other, smaller conversations that build on your family’s shared understanding over time.

Keep in mind that other trusted adults can also be helpful when attempting to explain your experiences to your child. Consider grandparents, other family members or good friends who you talk to about the experience of mental illness. They may be able to help you with what to say, or support your child by reinforcing particular messages you want them to understand.

Remember, you’re not alone! There are many ways to get help and information on looking after your mental health, and many ways to share it with your family. If extra support is needed, you can ask a trusted mental health professional for guidance.

Videos for young people

Young people explain to others what mental illness is and how to understand symptoms a parent may experience.