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.

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 with teenagers about mental illness' includes a useful reflective exercise to help.

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.

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.

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

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.

Thinking about your symptoms and behaviours, here are some questions to consider before talking to your teenager:

  • How might your behaviour be affecting your teenager?
  • How might your symptoms and behaviour 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 behaviour be affecting their decisions?
  • What information could help your teenager to understand what they have observed about your behaviour?

Mother having coffee with daughter on the couch

Preparing to talk to your teen

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 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 relationships.
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.
 

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.