Updated: Jul 19, 2021
You probably think you know how to talk with a child about death. But somehow talking about a parent’s mental illness may seem more difficult.
Even medical professionals, as most people, can find themselves feeling more judgmental or uneasy talking about mental illness than about physical problems.
But with a prevalence of about one in four people having mental disorders, we need to be prepared for this discussion.
Sometimes family members, or even parents themselves, have asked me to tell a child about a parent’s mental illness or substance use. They know the child is confused and scared but don’t know what to say about this still-hushed issue.
Other times, children’s behaviors show that they are struggling – by their aggression, depression, decline in school performance, anger, anxiety, or running away – and I only find out by asking that they are experiencing life with a mentally ill parent.
Both are times to:
get more information about the nature of the parent’s symptoms
what is being done about it
what the child has seen, heard, or experienced
the child’s safety
and what intrinsic or cultural attitudes the family has about the problem.
It is best if the affected parents themselves are able to talk realistically about the illness with the child. Sometimes we, as pediatric professionals, can help get the conversation started or may need to step in.
What needs to be conveyed about parental mental illness depends on the developmental age and maturity of the child.
Teens can understand the nature of mental illness as a brain disorder, but often have acquired misinformation from peers, the other parent who is hurt and/or angry, or the Internet that needs to be respectfully corrected. They may be less willing to have such a discussion than would younger children, as they may have experienced verbal or physical aggression from the parent, embarrassment in front of peers, or teasing by classmates. They may have developed coping strategies of writing off the parent, defiance, aggressive responses, or denial.
It is important to find a relaxed moment and begin by saying, “May I ask what you have noticed about your parent’s behavior?” and “What did you make of it?” If they do not answer, you could add, “You know, like acting different or strange.” It is very valuable to be able to name it, if you know the diagnosis, to make the illness more objective.
Teens are typically egocentric and wonder if they are prone to develop a similar condition, as well as anxious about who will be there for them if the parent does not get better; both are good questions to address.
Both adolescents and school-aged children are very attuned to when things in life are “unfair,” and having an ill parent certainly qualifies.
It is important for whoever has this discussion to empathize, and to acknowledge that it is unfair and that feeling angry, sad, or confused is natural – without giving them permission for misbehavior.
It may be easier for some children to have a journal in which to write questions to have an adult answer later.
Any child can be given hope by knowing that the parent is getting help (or that you will work on this), especially if the parents themselves say they are trying to get better. The children need to know that although mental illness tends to get better and worse at unexpected times, mental health can be improved. It is essential that children of school age and older have a clear plan for what to do if the parent loses control or is in danger. This might include getting out of the house and calling the parent’s partner, a trusted neighbor, or 911.
While teens may feel guilty about their anger or things they might have said or done in reaction to the ill parent, school-aged and preschool children are more likely to feel guilty that they somehow contributed to the parent’s condition through misbehavior or some imagined influence.
Eliciting these thoughts may simply require asking, “What thoughts have you had about why this happened?” or having another family member prompting them by saying, “I have been wondering if there is something I should have done. Have you wondered about that, too?”
What is harder to explain is the impression children may get that their depressed or psychotic or drug-abusing parents no longer love them; and the parents may have said hurtful things to them.
School-aged children can be told and can understand an illness of “the feelings and thinking parts of the brain” as being similar to other physical illnesses, such as the flu, that “make people act tired or grouchy or say things they do not mean.”
Children of all ages need to be reassured that, inside, their parents still love them, and “it is the illness talking” if they act or speak otherwise.
In the case of substance abuse disorders, which might seem more of a choice by the parent than would other mental illnesses, it can be helpful to point out that “drugs and alcohol can be stronger than people and can take over their brains.” The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI.org) offers support programs that may be helpful for older children.
Sometimes families may resist telling a child about parental mental illness because of personal beliefs, cultural stigma, or privacy concerns. I try to emphasize that by being honest in giving children an understanding of their parents’ mental illness, one is helping them trust the adults in their lives.
They need the truth and also to practice formulating things to say to counter those who have incorrect ideas, or who insult or make fun of them or their family.
They need the truth about mental illness to make sense of their experiences so they can feel lovable and hopeful about their own futures and could recognize illness symptoms in themselves if they happen.
Giving them words, ensuring their safety and support, and strengthening their coping can help buffer the impact of this common adverse childhood experience to help prevent long-term negative effects.
Dr. Howard is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and creator of CHADIS (www.CHADIS.com). She reported no other relevant disclosures. Dr. Howard’s contribution to this publication was as a paid expert to MDedge News. Email her at email@example.com
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