Talking about mental illness with your child helps alleviate worries about behaviour they might not understand.
Your child's understanding
Children of primary school age are very perceptive and pick up on even the smallest changes in their parent’s behaviour or body language (despite attempts to ‘hide’ them).
They have active imaginations and can play out 'what if' scenarios in their minds, often thinking that things are worse than they really are. They also tend to believe they’re somehow at fault for their parent’s behaviour, and may feel responsible for making them feel better.
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
Discussing your mental illness with your child can help them to make sense of changes they notice in you and your family. Without your support, they do try to understand things on their own. Talking with your child will reduce their confusion, let them know they aren’t to blame, and educate them about your illness and the support you are getting.
Thinking about your symptoms
If you (or your partner) are experiencing mental illness, be aware that the way you behave around your child is important.
To help you reflect on this, consider the following questions:
What might your primary-school-aged child have noticed about you and your behaviour?
How might their imagination have exaggerated what this means?
How might your child feel and behave if they believe that they are the cause of your behaviour?
What behaviour do you think has been most difficult for your child to deal with?
When you're ready to start the conversation:
It can help children if you ‘normalise’ mental illness or make it appear more 'normal' and easier to relate to. You can do this by referring to someone they might know of who has a mental illness. You can also explain that mental illness is common: one in four people have a mental illness - it’s just that most people don’t talk about it.
You might explain mental illness by comparing it to physical illness. Tell them, just as you can break your leg, or get a physical illness, your mind can also be sick or broken.
You might decide to ask them if they’ve noticed any unusual behaviour and then explain it’s because of the illness.
Let them know how the illness may directly impact on them and others in the family.
Where possible, don't keep your mental illness a ‘secret’.
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.
Talk to your child about recovery, and tell them that people can manage their mental illness and live really satisfying lives.
Encourage open discussion about what they notice and understand about your symptoms and behaviour.
Ask them what they understand about words they use to describe mental illness. Children often use words they’ve heard but don’t understand.
Give correct, basic information they can understand. Don’t support any imagined ‘explanations’ they may have made up.
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).
Tell them the mental illness isn’t their fault and it’s not their responsibility to make their parent better.
Some children like to help. In this case you can suggest small things they can do when you’re unwell, like tidying up toys, picking a bunch of flowers or drawing a nice picture for you.
Use books or movies to help you discuss mental illness. You can find different resources for specific age groups at our resource library.
Foster an open relationship
Ideally, encourage your child to talk about mental illness with trusted and supportive friends and family. It’s also important to have an open and safe relationship with your child so they can ask all the ‘scary’, worst-case scenario questions on an ongoing basis with you.
Try to make your child feel safe, so that they will ask questions and express their feelings - which is good for their development and wellbeing.
Recovery and self-care
It’s important to look after yourself and seek help when needed as this will reassure your child. Also, children observe and often mimic choices and decisions their parents make.
When you look after yourself you’re being a good role model for them too - teaching them to care for their own mental and physical health.