Talking to primary school age children about mental illness

Primary-school kids laughing after schoolMost parents wonder about how they should talk to their child about mental illness

Understanding your symptoms and behaviours

When you understand your mental illness  you will be more familiar with how it effects your emotions, behaviour and moods. This will help you develop an understanding of the impact of mental illness on you and your child.

Emotions, behaviour and moods affect how you view yourself and how others view you. They also affect your relationships with others, including your child. An important first step when preparing to talk to your child about mental illness is to reflect on the symptoms you experience, the behaviours your child sees and hears and how these affect how your child feels. COPMI's factsheet 'Talking to primary school age children about mental illness' includes a useful reflective exercise to help.

We saw horrible things that as a child were confusing and scary. Like mum being restrained and sedated, or not knowing who we were. I wish someone explained what was happening.
Brooke, adult child of a mum with mental illness

As a parent it can be very challenging to think about how your child might view what is happening. It might be useful to talk to your health professional or another support person about the impact of your mental illness on your role as a parent.

Conversations with your child about mental illness are meant to help them make sense of their experience. If you are trying to understand your illness, or need to talk about your experiences, find an adult that you trust, a health professional or a peer worker. Do not go to your child to help you understand your illness.

Understanding what your child notices and experiences

Children at different ages will notice and react to your behaviours and emotions differently. Primary school age children are very perceptive and pick up on even the smallest changes in their parent's behaviours and body language (despite a parent's attempts to 'hide' them).

Children tend to believe they are somehow at fault for their parent's behaviour, and can feel responsible for making their parent better.

To help you reflect on this, consider the following questions:

  • What might your primary-school-aged child have noticed about your symptoms and behaviour?
  • How might they have made sense of these?
  • What have you noticed about their reaction to them?
  • What do you think they might be feeling?
  • What might they understand in the language you use?
  • What behaviours do you think might worry your child the most?

Preparing to talk to your child

Conversations with your child about your mental illness are important. These conversations help your child understand the family situation and make sense of what they are experiencing. When your child does not understand what is happening in the family they can worry, feel alone and misunderstand the situation. They may feel personally responsible, be worried about you and be worried about your health and safety. 

Helping your child understand mental illness and what it means for your family will:

  • Help your child to know that it is okay to talk about mental illness
  • Allow your child to ask questions and get the correct information
  • Help them to come to you (or others) when they are worried or overwhelmed
  • Build understanding that can strengthen relationships.

Some tips

    • Talk to your child at their level using language they will understand.
    • Stop and pause after each new bit of information.
    • Give your child time to think and ask questions (the questions may not come straight away, your child may need thinking time).
    • If you do not know the answer tell them that you will find out, or even find out together.
    • One discussion is never enough - a shared understanding takes time and your child's questions and need for information will change as they grow.
    • Keep your first discussion simple - think of it as a starting a longer-term conversation over time as they grow. See this page for more information on starting the conversation
    • Encourage your child to ask questions or raise concerns whenever they want. But be sure to set up a process for them so that if you are too unwell or do not have energy to answer questions they still feel valued and know that you will make time for it later.
    • Set up a support network for your child so that if you can't answer their questions they can seek answers from a person that you both trust (e.g. a family member, a family friend or a health professional).
    • Although discussions might be short, their meaning is important. Often the first discussion is the most daunting. Small conversations can build on your child's and your family's shared understanding over time.
    • Ask about fears or worries and try to reduce these, by making practical plans (such as through a care plan which will help to reduce their concerns).

Mother reads with older daughter

Foster an open relationship

Other trusted adults can be helpful when explaining your mental illness to your child. Consider grandparents, other family members or good friends. Have a conversation with these people. Tell them what information you have given to your child and the information that you would like them to share with your child. You can also tell them what you do not want to share.

There are many ways to get help and information on looking after your mental health and how to share this information with your family. If extra help is needed, ask your doctor or mental health professional for guidance.

Other age groups:

Videos for young people

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

Koolta - rapping about having a parent with a mental illness

Check it out.