Talking to teenagers about mental illness

Young girl and guy doing homework in school uniform

Teenagers are in the process of developing an adult view of the world and will be trying to make sense of your behaviour and any changes in the family.

The teenage perspective

At this age, teenagers can understand more factual and complex information and are usually better able to express their feelings and thoughts. They generally talk more openly with friends and peers than parents, so they may have the wrong information about your situation. They are often sensitive to their peers’ attitudes and the stigma that is associated with mental illness.

It’s common for teenagers to want to know:

Still to this day I have vivid recollections of mum's rages, the police manoeuvring mum down the front path with force into their van and the horror of watching mum asleep in bed and hoping she was alive.

I felt responsible to behave however I could that would help Mum feel better or be happier.
Louise, adult child of a mum with mental illness

  • why you have your problems
  • what you’re doing about them
  • how you were diagnosed
  • whether they will have the same problems

They might also worry about their emerging independence and how it might be affected by your care needs.

Without your support, teenagers will try understanding things on their own. Talking with them will reduce their confusion and worry, let them know they aren’t to blame, and educate them about your illness and the help you are getting. Ultimately, this will help to reassure them.

Getting prepared

When you and your partner understand your mental illness it's likely you’ll be more comfortable talking about it with your child. You can research the illness yourself or ask your health professional for information. There’s a lot of information about mental illness, the types of support and treatments available on the internet. Some helpful websites include:

Do you prefer to understand the illness with the help of a doctor or mental health professional? Ask questions and speak about your personal experiences. Keep in mind that it can take time to find a health professional you feel comfortable with and is the right fit for you.

Some parents find it difficult to approach the subject with their child as they worry it will burden them. On the contrary, many parents have reported how accepting their children were to learn about mental illness the first time. It can actually be comforting to understand why things might be ‘different’ and that you’re taking steps to manage the illness.

Thinking about your symptoms

It can also be helpful to reflect on your teenager's perspective about you and your mental illness. Consider the following:

  • How might your behaviour be affecting your teenager’s daily life?
  • How might the symptoms of your illness affect your relationship with your teenager?
  • Which behaviour appears to be the most difficult or important to them?
  • How might this impact on your teenager’s involvement with their friends or peers?
  • What concerns might your teenager have about their own mental health?
  • How might your symptoms be affecting their young adult decisions?
  • What information could help your teenager to understand what they have observed about your behaviour?

Mother having coffee with daughter on the couch

Starting the conversation

  • It can help children if you ‘normalise’ mental illness or make it 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 can 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 affect them and other family members.

Some tips

  • Create an atmosphere that welcomes open discussion by asking them what they notice and understand about your symptoms and behaviours.
  • Present fact-based information about the illness that you have researched and understand.
  • Give them information about symptoms, your recovery and the range of help and strategies you find helpful.
  • Lead them to information they can read themselves, such as the simple explanations in the kids and young peoples' section of this website or headspace.
  • Teenagers often find it more comfortable to 'talk while doing'. For example, you might find it easier starting a discussion while you’re in the car, going for a walk or kicking a ball around.
  • Be honest and sensitive about their increased vulnerability to mental health problems. Let them know that the majority of children who have a parent with a mental illness do not develop an illness themselves and effective treatments and supports are available if they do.
  • Ask about their fears related to your mental illness, and how they might influence their future plans and decisions (like moving out of home). Then talk through ideas that will help them make decisions or plans to reduce these fears.
  • One discussion is usually not enough. Your child’s questions and specific need for information will change over time.
  • See COPMI's short video clips for young people about mental illness and how to understand a parent's symptoms.
  • See the Raising Children Network's Talking to Teens interactive guide, or call your state's Parentline service if you need tips on how to relate to your child if you find it difficult.
  • Look for videos, books and other resources for teenagers on parental mental illness through the resource library search tool on this website.

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 - that is good for their development and wellbeing.

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.