Helping Children Understand Mental Illness

Helping Children Understand Mental Illness:
A Resource For Parents And Guardians
Mental illness can be frightening — not only to the person who has it but also to
people around them. If you are a child and reliant on the care of an adult who has
a mental illness, things can be even more confusing. Children may have a
number of questions, such as “Why is my mom or dad this way?” “Will I become
this way?” and “Who will take care of me if my mom or dad is sick?”
If a child you care for has a parent with a mental illness, it is important to take
time to address their questions and concerns. Helping a child understand their
parent’s or guardian’s illness will make the illness seem less ‘frightening’ and give
the child the tools they need for a more confident, safe and happy life.
Here are some tips that may help when talking to a child about mental illness and
answers to some commonly asked questions.
Ideas To Encourage Conversation
It can be less threatening to start by asking children why they think their
mom/dad sometimes acts “different” or “strange,” then use their comments or
questions as an opening to talk more about mental illness.
If you think a child wants to talk to you but is afraid to open up, here are some
questions you might want to ask them. It is important to remember, though, that if
a child does not want to talk to you, you should not force them. Just let them
know that you are there for them and ready to listen if they do want to talk.

  •  Children may feel guilty about being embarrassed by their parent’s

illnesses. Ask a child about the way their parent acts and how it makes
them feel. Explain that mental illness can make parents act in strange,
confusing or scary ways sometimes; ask how that makes them feel.

  • Children often feel responsible for their parent’s illness or feel as

though it is somehow their fault. Asking a child if they ever feel as
though there is something they could do to make the problem go away or
if they somehow feel they are to blame for the way their mom/dad has
been acting is one way to start this conversation. Just be very careful that,
in asking, you don’t imply (or let the child feel you imply) that this is
somehow their fault. Another approach might be to say, “You know I
sometimes wish there was something I could do/or wish I had done differently to make your mom/dad better. But I know that mental illness is
nobody’s fault . . . “
If a child asks you a question you don’t know how to answer, be honest and tell
them you don’t know, but you will try to find out.
Helping Children With Their Feelings
A child’s feelings may vary depending on how old they are and how much they
understand about their parent’s illness. For example, younger children often feel
guilty or afraid while older children tend to feel more anger and embarrassment.
Create an atmosphere that would encourage children to talk about their feelings.

  •  Talk about your own feelings so that they have a role model.
  • Take advantage of moments that lend themselves to a discussion of

feelings, for example when watching a television show about a parent who
becomes disabled.

  • Be available to listen, but don’t pressure a child to talk about feelings if

she/he isn’t willing.
Things to do when children try to express feelings:

  •  Give them your full attention. Make eye contact.
  • Check out what you are hearing in their words or interpreting from their


  • For example, “So you’re really angry at your father and me because of

how much of my attention he takes?” or “You’ve been slamming doors all
night. Are you angry about something? I’m here if you want to talk.”
If the feelings shared by a child arouse strong feelings in you (e.g., anger,
sadness, guilt), resist the temptation to jump in. Becoming judgmental or
emotional while the child is talking can prevent them from talking more, both now
and in the future. It takes great self-discipline to not get judgmental if a child is
having feelings that you think they shouldn’t have. You might be tempted to say,
“You shouldn’t be angry with me. You should be thankful. I’m the one keeping the
family together.” Try not to give in to these temptations; a child needs to express
their emotions (even difficult ones) in order to better understand and learn from
them. Provide your children with skills for handling strong feelings:

  • Explain that feelings are neither right nor wrong. It’s okay and natural for

them to have the feelings they’re having.

  • Emphasize that talking about feelings can be helpful and that you’ll always

try to make special time when the child needs to talk.

  • Explain that feelings do not have to control what we do. Give examples

such as “It’s OK that you’re angry at your Father and I, but the way you’re
acting toward us now is not OK” or “Being embarrassed about your
mother’s illness doesn’t have to stop you from explaining it to your
Humor can help to make the whole communication seem positive if it isn’t used to
discount or ignore your children’s feelings.
Helping Children Understand The Illness

  • Start with yourself. What are your attitudes and knowledge about the


  • The more you know, the better you’ll be able to answer their questions


  •  The stronger your attitude that the illness is somebody’s fault, the greater

risk you run of saying and doing things that can make your child blame
their parent or others.

  • Find out how the child explains their ill parent’s behavior.
  • Build on what the child says: Acknowledge any truth in what they say;

Respectfully correct anything that is based on wrong information or
fantasy. For example, “Daddy isn’t acting this way because of anything
you or I have done.”

  • Use language and explanations that are appropriate to each child’s age

and intelligence, using examples that are familiar to them.
For example, you might say to a 5-year old: “Do you remember when you had
the chicken pox? You cried a lot, you didn’t feel like doing anything and you were
grouchy toward all of us. It wasn’t because you didn’t love us or wanted to be that
way but because you didn’t feel well. Right now your mommy doesn’t feel well. That’s why she’s crying a lot, not doing anything and acting grouchy. She still
loves you and me, but she can’t show it right now.”
Whereas you might tell a 10-year old: “You know how parts of our bodies get sick
sometimes, like when we get stomach aches or sore throats. Well some people
get sick in the part of their brain that controls feelings. That’s what’s wrong with
dad. He has a sickness in that part of his brain that controls feelings. This
sickness has a name. It’s called manic depression.”

  • If a child has witnessed violent or suicidal behavior, situations requiring

police intervention or any other traumatic incidents, don’t underestimate
how terrifying this experience can be. Explain to the child that their parent
didn’t know what was best for them at the time and explain how the
doctors/police/whomever are going to help their parent.

  • Children learn from what they see others doing, so try to behave, speak,

and have the same kind of attitude you would like to see in them.
Helping Children Feel Good About Themselves
Children, like adults, get angry when something unfair happens to them. At some
point, children will probably ask themselves, “Why did this have to happen to
me/our family?” You can help by making sure they understand that life is unfair
sometimes and gives no “guarantees”, but that they did nothing to deserve this
Children of ill parents worry that they will inherit the illness, especially if the
parent’s illness involves feelings, thoughts, or behavior. They need lots of
reassurance that they are “normal” or okay. If they do have a problem, they need
to know that many other people have problems too, all problems can be
discussed, and most problems can be solved, or at least managed.
Make sure a child understands that they aren’t “bad” or “sick” if they have
unpleasant feelings like anger, jealousy, sadness, fear, or embarrassment.
These feelings come and go in everyone. It helps to talk about them with
someone they trust.
Having more information often helps people cope better and reduces negative
feelings. There are many advantages to explaining the illness to children and
answering their questions:

  • Children often imagine things that are worse than reality; the truth is often

not as bad as they fear.

  • Being honest with children helps them trust you.  Understanding that there’s an illness involved can help children feel for

and respect their ill parent.

  • Understanding can also help reduce their anger and guilt about what has


  • Being informed also lessens the risk of any anger and mistrust a child

might feel if left to discover on their own the ways that their family life
differs from their friends’ during episodes of illness.

  • Being informed also lessens some of the vulnerability, sensitivity,

confusion and surprise a child might feel when confronted with negative
comments from others about their ill parent.
Helping Children Feel Safe And Secure
During stressful times in a family, children need reassurance that someone will
take care of them. Here are some ways to help children feel more confident and
assured of their safety and stability.

  • A consistent routine helps children feel safe. The more predictable and

structured the environment, the better most children will feel.

  • Explain to children that sometimes talking can help and keeping things in

can make one feel worse. Help children identify which adults and which
friends they trust and like to talk to when they are feeling upset.
Encourage them to talk to these people. (If they choose you, try to be a
good, nonjudgmental listener.)

  • Make sure children know what to do and who to call if they don’t feel safe,

especially if they are children of a single parent who is ill or if their ill
parent has a history of violence or suicide attempts.

  • Encourage them to tell you or someone they trust whenever something

happens that upsets or scares them.

  •  Just like you would prepare a child for what to do in case of a fire or being

approached by a stranger, tell them exactly who to call and where to go if
something happens that scares them when they are alone with their ill
parent and they can’t reach you.
“Go to every neighbor we know until you find someone who is home. Ask them if
you can use their phone. Call the phone numbers I’ve given you until you reach someone. That person will tell you what to do next. Stay with the neighbor until
you reach someone on the list and you know what to do.”

  • Children who have lived in very stressful situations are often tense and

watchful in order to detect early signs of trouble or danger. Make sure the
child knows it is okay to relax, have fun and feel good, even if their parent
is ill or things are stressful at home.

  • Explain to the child that even though their parent may have done or said

things that hurt them, their parent loves them very much, does not mean
to hurt them, and is very sorry.

  • Ask children what they do to feel better when they are feeling upset,

scared, hopeless, or unsafe. If they are coping in ways you think are
destructive, help them figure out better ways. School guidance counselors
or mental health professionals are other resources for helping them
develop healthy coping strategies.
Helping Children Learn Effective Verbal And Behavioral Responses
Here are some practical suggestions for ways a child can respond to the ill

  • Share any of the discoveries or skills you have learned about what works

and doesn’t work in dealing with the ill parent. For example, “I know it’s
upsetting when mommy talks about the food being poisoned, but arguing
with her about it doesn’t help.”

  • Make sure the child understands that even though their parent is ill, it’s

okay for them to protect themselves from any behavior that seems scary
or dangerous.

  • Give specific suggestions for how to protect themselves. You may want to

make a rule that the child tells you whenever a situation involving their ill
parent has scared them or made them uncomfortable and teach the child
to tell the ill parent whenever she/he is scaring or upsetting them.

  • Let a child know that showing their ill parent they still love him/her is very


  • Consistently discipline your children for acting disrespectful to their ill

parent or you. Here are some practical suggestions for responding to others about the ill parent:

  • Asking or expecting children to keep the illness a secret can be extremely

burdensome to them.

  • What you say and do with others regarding the illness will probably

influence the child more than anything you tell them to do.

  • Explain to the child that many people don’t understand the illness and it

may scare them; they may try to make fun of it; they may have ideas that
aren’t true; or they may change the subject or say nothing.

  • Teach a child how to explain the illness to others. The more children

understand, the easier it will be for them to explain to others.

  • Practice with them how they might respond to questions or comments.

Children of any age can be cruel to each other, so it is important to prepare a
child to deal with teasing from other children. Here are some tips for helping
children know they don’t have to bear the burden of keeping their parent’s illness
a secret:

  • How you and other adults behave will influence children more than

anything you “tell” them to do, so try to be a good role model for matter-offact communication about the illness.

  • Explain to children that even though other families may have mental

illnesses too, many people still don’t understand that a mental illness is
really an illness, not just somebody acting crazy on purpose. Help a child
realize that when they try to talk about their parent’s illness, other children
(and even adults) may make fun of it, may have ideas that aren’t true, or
may not know what to say.
Practice with them what they might say to help people understand the illness and
stop teasing:

  •  “My dad does that because he is sick. I wouldn’t make fun of your dad if

he was sick Please don’t make fun of mine.”

  •  “If you really understood what is wrong with my mother, I don’t think you’d

say that. She has an illness that makes her do that. She’s taking medicine
and trying to get better. It’s really hard for me, so please don’t tease me
about it.” Encourage children to ask questions. Let them know you think questions are
good, even if there aren’t always answers. By encouraging discussion, you will
be helping to keep the lines of communication open.
Responses To Some Commonly Asked Questions
Why is my mom/dad acting this way?
Your mom/dad has a mental illness. Mental illnesses are diseases that affect the
brain, which is where we control our feelings, thoughts and behavior. So
sometimes mental illnesses can make people say things or do things that they
would not normally do if they were feeling healthy. There are many different kinds
of mental illness. Here are the big names doctors have for some of them:
Depression, Manic Depression (or Bipolar Disorder), Schizoaffective Disorder,
Schizophrenia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Panic Disorder. (If there is
a diagnosis, you might want to tell the child the diagnosis in order to reinforce the
idea that their parent has an illness that doctors can name.)
Is this my fault?
Mental illness is nobody’s fault. You didn’t cause your mom’s/dad’s illness and
you are not responsible for making it go away.
Can I ‘catch it’ or become sick like them?
Mental illness is not like a cold. You can’t “catch” it. Just because your mom/dad
has it does not mean you or I will get it. Scientists still don’t know what causes it,
but they are trying to find out.
Will things stay like this?
Most people who have a mental illness are helped by taking medicine, going into
the hospital, or talking to people who are trained to help them. (Talk with the child
about ways their parent is trying to get help, OR reasons why they may not be
seeking help. For example, “Your dad doesn’t want to take medicine because it’s
too scary for him to admit he has this illness” or “Your mom doesn’t want to go to
a doctor because she is scared the doctor will make her go into the hospital
Do mom and dad still love me?
Yes. Your mom/dad are acting strange/scary/remote because they are sick, not
because they don’t love you anymore. Why is this happening to me/us?
Doctors don’t know why people get mental illnesses, but you are not alone. Many
families have a member with a mental illness (1 in every 4) and many of them
manage to cope and stay together. There are a lot of other children who have
someone in their family with mental illness, but they may be too embarrassed or
scared to talk about it, so you don’t know. (Ask the child if they know any other
children who have mental illness in their family)
Source: Mental Health Association of Southeastern PA