A very powerful way to support your child and family is to help them to understand your illness and its symptoms

Should I talk with my child about my mental illness?

Many parents who experience mental illness wonder whether they should talk to their child about it (what they should say, how much they should say and how they should say it). Perhaps you’re one of these parents? You might wonder about whether your child notices your symptoms and what they think, or perhaps you think they haven’t noticed anything?

It is common for parents to think it’s better to avoid talking to children about their mental illness, to protect them from stress and confusion. Yet research shows that when parents talk openly about their struggles, in language their child can understand, it actually helps the child to cope better. It can help them to make sense of the changes that they observe in you when you’re unwell and to know that they’re not at fault or somehow responsible for them.

Ultimately, you need to make a decision about whether to talk to your child. To help you make this decision it can be helpful to ask yourself:

  • What worries do I have about discussing it with my child?
  • What are the benefits of talking with them?

You might like to talk to a health professional about this beforehand.

Preparing to talk

Most parents find it difficult to talk about their experience of mental illness. They don’t know what to say to their child, or how to explain what’s going on.

When considering how you can help your child understand, first think about the principle used in aircraft emergencies: Put on your own oxygen mask before attempting to help others. In other words, develop your own understanding of what’s happening to you first. This will help you to feel more confident and prepared to talk to your child and answer any questions they may have.

It can help to discuss your experiences with a mental health professional and think about how you can explain these experiences to others.

There are a lot of booklets, fact sheets and websites that you can look through for ideas to help you and your child to understand more about mental illness and how you can talk together as a family.

Some good websites include:

Your child’s understanding

Children of different ages and stages of development will make sense of what they observe of you and your behaviour and draw their own conclusions from it.

When thinking about talking to your child, it can be helpful to step into their shoes and to think about the situation from their point of view. What might they have noticed about your symptoms and how might they make sense of them?

It can be good to think about this with your partner (or another supportive person). If you don’t have a partner, you could talk this through with a family member, a good friend or your mental health professional. Doing this activity with someone who knows you well is a great idea as they might have observed your symptoms from a different perspective.

Consider their age and developmental stage

To help you further step into your child’s shoes, identify your child’s age and developmental stage from the options below, to help think about what they are most likely to notice and understand.

I thought when the doctors told Dad that Mum had a mental illness she was going to die – that was scary.

Everyone was so serious and didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to do either. I wish someone had of talked to me.

Matt, son of a mum with mental illness.

Download Free COPMI Resources

For use by families where a parent has a mental illness, their supporters, and services who work with them.