talking to children and youth about mental illness

When mental illness affects a family, the children are just as confused and scared as adult family members. They know something is wrong. They need information and explanations to help them to understand what is happening. Children often imagine things that are worse than what is really happening. Parents and adult siblings can help dispel fears. Help your children to be supportive of their family member by talking with them about mental illness. Be honest and optimistic.

It is important to be knowledgeable about the particular mental illness your family member is living with. If your children ask you questions you don’t know the answers to, be honest and tell them you don’t know. Let them know you will try to find the answers.

Suggestions for what to talk about:

Children, especially young children, often believe that if something happens in their world it is linked to something they did. Ask your children if they somehow feel they are to blame for their family member becoming ill. Reassure your children that their family member’s mental illness was not their fault – it’s nobody’s fault.

Age-appropriate explanations
Talk to your children using language and explanations that are appropriate to their age level and maturity.

Young children need less specific information because of their limited ability to understand. They will likely focus on what they can see – a family member acting strangely or the emotions they see such as crying or angry outbursts. Keep explanations simple.

School-age children will likely ask more questions and want more specific information. They will likely want to know why someone is acting the way they do. They may also worry about their safety.

Teenagers can generally handle more complex information about mental illness. They may have already learned something about it, but will likely have more questions. Their fears will most often stem from a concern that they will develop the illness. At times, counselling is needed, and for some, genetic counselling in particular may be helpful.

Young children often feel guilty or afraid while older children may feel more angry, embarrassed or concerned about themselves.

Resources to help: