Talking to teenagers about parental mental illness
Most parents wonder about how to talk to a young person about parental 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, behaviours and moods affect how you view yourself and how others view you. They also affect your relationships with others, including with 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 with teenagers about mental illness' includes a useful reflective exercise to help, please find a link below.
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 with your health professional or another support person about the impact of your mental illness on your role as a parent.
Similarly, conversations with your child about mental illness can help them make sense of their experience. If you are trying to make sense of your illness, or need to talk about your experiences, discuss this with either an adult that you trust, a health professional or a peer worker. Do not expect your child to help you understand your illness.
Understanding what your teenage child notices and experiences
Children of different ages will notice and react to your behaviour and emotions differently. Parent-teen relationships can be complex. Teenagers are in the process of developing an adult view of the world. They are trying to make sense of their relationships with you and with others. Your behaviour may challenge how they see you and how they see themselves.
It is common for teenagers to worry about their parent, their parent's illness and how this impacts on their relationship with you. They may want to know how you were diagnosed and whether you will get better. Some teenagers also worry about whether they will develop a mental illness. They may want to know how you were diagnosed and whether you will get better. Some teenagers also worry about whether they will develop a mental illness. They may want to know how to explain your illness to others without feeling they are being disrespectful or disloyal to you.
Thinking about your symptoms and behaviours, here are some questions to consider before talking to your child:
how might your behaviours be affecting your teenager?
how might your symptoms and behaviours impact on your relationship with them?
which behaviours appear to be the most challenging for them?
how might this impact on their involvement with community activities, friends or peers?
what concerns might they have about their own mental health?
how might your symptoms and behaviours be affecting their decisions?
what information could help your teenager to understand what they have observed about your behaviour?
Preparing to talk to your teen
Conversations with your child about your mental illness are important. These conversations can help you understand your child's experiences and help your child understand your experiences and the family situation. This may help them make sense of what is happening. When your child does not understand the situation they can worry, feel alone and misunderstand what is going on. 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 know 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 to strengthen your relationship.
Other trusted adults can be helpful when explaining your mental illness to you child. Consider grandparents, other family members or good friends. Have a conversation with these people. Tell them what information you have given 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 with your child.
Starting the conversation with your child
You could start a conversation about your mental illness with:
"You may have been worried about .... or noticed ..... (thinking about your symptoms or behaviours). I want you to know I have a mental illness. You have not caused this. It is not your fault."
You could invite your child to talk about what they have noticed or are worried about:
"What have you noticed that worries you?"
You can then follow with:
"I am here to talk to if you have any questions or are worried. If you feel you can't come to me, you can talk to ....."
Here is an example of how you could start the conversation:
"You might have noticed I do not seem to have much energy and I am always tired. Being tired is a symptom of my mental illness. I want you to know you have not caused this and it is not your fault. I don’t like feeling like this and it must be hard for you to understand when you see me tired and sleeping a lot.”
Tips to remember
Young people access and receive information from a number of different places such as friends, television and online including social media. This information may not always match your experience, listen to your child and then explain your experience.
Make sure the conversation happens when you are both ready and calm.
Give them information about symptoms, your recovery and the range of help and strategies you find helpful.
Encourage your child to ask questions or raise concerns whenever they want but understand that they may need some time to process the information first, questions may come later.
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.
Set up a process so that if you are too unwell or do not have the energy to answer your child’s questions, they know that you will make time for it later.
One discussion is never enough – a shared understanding takes time and your child’s questions and need for information will change.
Set up a support network for your child so that if you can not 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.
A range of free resources that can help you to talk with your child about your mental illness are available at the COPMI website:
‘About Mental Illness’ - a series of short video clips for young people by young people who have a parent with a mental illness: www.copmi.net.au/mental-illness
‘When your parent has a mental illness’ - a booklet for teenagers to help them better understand a parent’s mental illness. This can be ordered or viewed online at the COPMI website www.copmi.net.au/materials
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.