Parenting can be hard work. If you are a parent living with mental health issues, it can be hard to know how to help your children to cope or understand. Knowing how to talk to your child about your experience with a mental illness can be difficult. You might not know if your child has noticed your symptoms and feel unsure about what amount of information you should give them.
It is common for parents to avoid talking to children about mental health problems to protect them. Yet, research shows that when parents talk openly about their struggles, using age appropriate language, it can help their children cope better. It can help them to make sense of the changes they observe, and reassure them that it’s not their responsibility.
PREPARING TO TALK
Preparing what you will say to your child can help you feel more confident. Before you can start to help your child to understand, develop your own understanding of what’s happening to you first. You may want to discuss your experiences with a mental health professional or practice explaining your experience to someone you trust. Think about what kinds of questions your child may have for you and plan how you can respond to them in an age appropriate way.
When you think about talking to your child, it can be helpful to try and think of the situation from their point of view. What observations may they have made of your symptoms? What facial expressions and tone of voice might they observe? Then, think about how may they be making sense of them.
TIME AND PLACE
Next, think about where and when you will talk to your child. Think of a time that you won’t be interrupted and will be in a safe and comfortable environment. It may be over dinner, when you’re going for a drive or quiet time before bed. Sometimes a side-by-side conversation, when you
are doing a task you both enjoy, can be a good opportunity to talk about big topics without needing to make eye contact or feeling pressured to give a quick response. Activities like gardening, cooking and craft can be great moments. Try not to have too many distractions around, like screens, or things that will take the focus off of the conversation.
HAVING THE CONVERSATION
Now that you have planned and chosen the right time and place, you are better prepared to start the conversation. COPMI (Children of Parents with Mental Illness) have a range of resources to help parents living with mental illness and suggest the following points for discussing your illness with your child :
- Discuss what’s happening to you and how it affects you. Remember there’s no need to share everything (you can decide how much to tell your child). Talking through what to say with your partner, a good friend or your mental health professional can be helpful.
- Consider your child’s age and ability to understand the information you give them to ensure they feel relaxed and can understand the conversation.
- Think about the language you use. Explanations for mental illness that are simple for your child to understand offer a good opportunity to compare mental illness with physical illness (and help to fight stigma).
- Be clear that it is not their fault and it’s not their responsibility to make you feel better.
- Ask about their fears and worries and then make plans to address them. It can help to discuss these with your mental health professional.
- Be reassuring and remind your child that you care about them and are getting help. It’s important that your child knows that there is a plan and that you’re trying to make sure their needs will be met.
- Let your child know that you’re there to answer their questions at any time and that there will be opportunities for more discussions over time.
There’s a saying that it takes a village to raise a child. If you are helping care for a child whose parent is living with mental health issues, there are some practical ways you can help:
Maintain a normal routine as much as possible – this may include things like; following bed time rituals, taking them to sport activities, playing familiar music or going to familiar places like parks or shopping centres.
Provide opportunities for the child to talk to you about how they are feeling and be someone they know will listen to their concerns. You may not always know what to say, but being someone they can rely on to listen to them is incredibly important for their sense of security. You don’t need to have all the answers. Sometimes there are no suitable answers, but we can always demonstrate empathy so that the child knows they have been heard and that you care about them.
If the child tells you about situations that they are finding difficult, you can ask them if they want your help finding strategies to cope. It could be strategies for managing their own stress, like deep breathing, identifying safe people to ask for help when its needed, or brainstorming what to do if here is an emergency situation. COPMI has fantastic information for friends and family helping children on their website.
By Sharna Mensah