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How I Explained My Mental Illness to My Kid

Jenn is perhaps best known as the author of the popular parenting blog Breed ‘Em and Weep (2005-2012). She’s written for many magazines, newspapers and websites, including Brain, Child Magazine, Literary Mama, and The Boston Globe. Jenn’...

If you suffer from mental illness, how do you talk about it with your children?

Parenting is a hard enough prospect when everyone's in a good frame of mind. But mental illness is an additional — and daunting — challenge that many families deal with daily.

Maybe your child is so paralyzed with anxiety she won't go to school. Or maybe you're the one struggling to get through the day despite the chronic, debilitating depression, bipolar disorder or PTSD that feels like it's eating you alive, bite by bite, all the time.

Most glossy, cheery parenting manuals steer clear of mental illness and how to talk to your kids about what's really going on. Many parents stay mute on the topic, wondering how to handle the situation — not always the best approach, according to experts.

"When children aren’t given information, they fill in the blanks.... Talking openly is an opportunity to correct misconceptions and decrease the anxiety that comes with uncertainty," writes Elana Premack Sandler, a licensed social worker. "Talking with children about mental illness requires learning a new a set of parenting skills. It may push your limits at a time that is already challenging. But the most important thing for your child to hear, even if it feels impossible to get the words exactly right, is that you love them."

Premack Sandler also encourages parents with mental illness to let their kids know that they're doing their best to stay proactive and get better. "One of the hardest things to communicate to anyone about mental illness is that it's often chronic nature... Treatments that work at one time may not be as effective under changed circumstances. But having a child know that a parent wants to feel better is a way to instill hope and strength."

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry suggests making a comparison to physical illness to help kids understand. The AACAP site says, "People who have a cold are usually able to do their normal activities. However, if they get pneumonia, they will have to take medicine and may have to go to the hospital. Similarly, feelings of sadness, anxiety, worry, irritability, or sleep problems are common for most people. However, when these feelings get very intense, last for a long period of time and begin to interfere with school, work, and relationships, it may be a sign of a mental illness that requires treatment."

More: The Burden of the High-Functioning Depressive

We reached out to parents to see how some have handled this very sticky issue — and the responses were bracingly honest and insightful.

"First off, acknowledge the illness. This comes from someone who has seen the damage it can do when a parent refuses to acknowledge something like this to the kids." — Dave A.

"Age, individual child's disposition and where you are in your own mental illness are all factors. It's got to be individualized to the situation and people. As the mentally ill child of an undiagnosed mentally ill parent, I'd say at some point [your illness] is probably obvious to your child; don't kid yourself. If your child is in therapy/on psych meds, then it seems supportive to admit your own illness. Also, talk to your child when you are feeling relatively well. Show that you are taking care of yourself." — Kathleen K.

"I have never explained my anxiety to my son — in fact, I've hidden it. I'm afraid somehow that he will find it in his own DNA if he knows I have it. Having said that, I know my son has anxiety issues and I monitor it very quietly and carefully. When I know we need to deal with his own issues, I'll tell him about mine." — Elizabeth L.

"When my child was very little, Daddy's bipolar disorder was addressed starting with talks about characters from Winnie the Pooh. Tigger = manic, Eeyore = depressed, Christopher Robin = stable. It's oversimplification, but there is much to be mined from those stories. Rabbit, Owl, Piglet, Pooh... everyone has issues. Piglet is great for addressing anxiety. He absolutely embodies it. But when he works through it, he always manages to Do The Thing — but it doesn't mean he isn't scared or worried." — Belinda H.

"I actually don't remember very clearly how I explained my mental illness to my daughter because I did it in the deep fog of having been psychotic. I seem to remember we were in a car, and I tried to explain to her that I was disabled, I couldn't do the things that ordinary people do. I remember she was upset, and I remember not knowing what to do about it. The issue still kind of plagues us today. It was pretty hard, and in general I have not done a great job of explaining and giving reassurance about my mental illness, but if I did and could, I would be less mentally ill. My own confusions and ambivalences got and still get in my way." — Savannah J.

"My husband spent 10 days in a psychiatric hospital a few years ago. Our kids were 12, 9 and 6. We explained it differently to each age. My oldest, we had a pretty frank discussion with, but my younger two, I explained by saying that sometimes bodies get sick. If you break your leg, you go to the doctor. You don't try to walk around on a broken leg because it hurts and it would never heal. Sometimes, a body will break, and it will get stuck on one emotion. It might get stuck on sad or scared or angry. We call this depression. When our bodies break like that, it is smart to go to the doctor and have her help make us better. She might put us in the hospital for a bit or give us medicines that help our bodies remember how to feel all the feelings, not just the unhappy ones." — Leah K.

More: Like Kristen Bell, you don't have to stay silent about your mental illness

"I've been thinking about it this way: Why to explain it to your kid. My therapist has been having me think of why my mom might act the way she does and how her anxiety influences it. It's really been helping me understand her better — and understand what I learned from her. This might not be as important for younger children, but if you approach [the mental illness] from why, you could discuss the benefits to mutual understanding between parent and child." — Ana O.
"My son is in therapy and takes ADHD meds. My son knows I've been to therapy and take meds as well. I've explained some of my anxiety to him as worry, but I've never told him about the depressive episodes (and I haven't had a severe enough one since he was old enough to remember). I don't know if he sees my anxiety — I think he'd try to take care of me if he knew and I'd hate that." — Elizabeth L.
"I kept it simple. When he wondered why we didn't visit my parents, I'd just tell him they were mean. I didn't tell him about the physical, sexual and psychological abuse and the horrible PTSD [caused by my parents]. He was seeing a therapist himself because of his dad's behavior towards him, so he got it. Sometimes he'd asked why I parented or disciplined in a certain way, and I'd explain that I got it from a book because my parents weren't a good role model — but if he had a better idea, we could renegotiate or ask his therapist what he thought. As he got older and asked more, I'd answer frankly without a lot of drama.... He also knows I have good coping mechanisms and when he was little, we made him a list of coping skills, so we both have a pretty pragmatic approach to living with it." — S.M.
"My 12-year-old is dealing with paralyzing anxiety/OCD right now. He's left the house fewer than 10 times since the end of January.... Am trying to help him understand that this isn't a death sentence. I've started to reveal more about my own anxiety issues. So, it's more of a shared experience. What's been hard is the sense that he knows how horrible he feels and it seems to be increasing his own anxiety that mom could feel this awful or not in control." — N.A.
"My son has a lot of anxiety and I have a history of anxiety, so I am able to share a lot of what I have learned about anxiety. I talk a lot about anxiety being a lying monster that tries to take over his brain and body. We have talked about depression and how it is like a robber. It is not particularly hard for me because of my experiences. He is responsive — but if he is in the throes of anxiety or depression himself, it doesn't always help in the moment." — Patti S.
There's obviously no one right way to talk to your kid about mental illness in the family — whether it's yours, theirs or another loved one's. Thankfully, there are some incredibly useful books that can help ease a difficult discussion. And take heart. If your family is dealing with mental illness, you're not alone — not even close.
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