Talking with Your Child about Mental Illness

What is mental illness?

A mental illness is a brain disorder that can affect thinking, feeling, moods, and the ability to relate to others. Mental illness is a real illness that can affect people of any age, race, religion, or income. Mental illness includes a wide range of problems, such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks, schizophrenia, eating disorders, mood disorders, and many others. Many mental illnesses have known causes and many treatment options. Mental illnesses are more common than cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, yet mental illness is not well understood by most people.

Why is mental illness a problem?

One in four families is affected by mental illness, yet it is not usually discussed. Mental illness can be scary. Friends and others may tell your child stories which may not be true.

How should I set the stage?

No matter what you want to talk about, it helps if you have a loving, trusting relationship with your child. Let your child speak his mind, and show that you want to know what he thinks and feels. Your child is more likely to talk with you about important issues if he feels that you really listen. Think about how your child might react to what you want to say and how best to respond to his questions and feelings. Try to talk when both of you have time and are feeling relaxed.

Offer information that fits your child’s age and ability to understand.

  • Pre-school age children need less information and details. They focus on things they can see. They may have questions about how people look and act, such as crying, yelling, or not talking at all.
  • School-age children may ask questions such as “Why is daddy talking to himself?” “Will I be like that?” “Who will take care of me now?” It is important to answer their questions honestly.
  • Teens often ask specific and difficult questions, like “Why is this happening to me?” and “What will my friends think?” They may have incorrect information about mental illness and may imagine things are worse than they really are.

What should I say?

Be positive and make your conversation as factual and “matter of fact” as you can. Try to keep your feelings under control, even if talking about it upsets you. This can help calm your child’s fears. Make it a conversation, not a lecture. Encourage questions and feedback.

  • Help your child understand that a mentally ill person may do or say things in a different way than usual, may not be able to do the things they usually do, or may have to go into the hospital even when you cannot see anything wrong with them. Correct any false beliefs about mental illness that your child might have. For example, the belief that people with mental illness are “weak” is not true. Once your child is old enough, help him to understand that mental illness can run in families. Many times, this will be when a child reaches the early teenage years. Tell your child if a certain illness runs in your family; teach him what to expect and what to do and say. For example, if one or more family members suffer from depression, help your child learn to recognize the symptoms of depression. Teach him that symptoms can be treated, just like a heart problem. If your child sees or feels symptoms that concern him, tell him to talk with you or a responsible adult.
  • Let your child know that there are many other children who have someone in their family with mental illness, but they may be too embarrassed or scared to talk about it.
  • Gently encourage your child to talk about how he feels about the family member’s illness. Teach your child that he cannot cause, control, or cure the person’s mental illness.
  • Let your child know that it’s okay to love the person but hate the illness.

Pay attention to your own feelings. It may be hard for you to talk about this with your child. You may want to join a support group, or find one for your child. If someone in your home has a serious mental illness and may harm themselves or your child, teach your child what to do if he feels threatened or unsafe.

  • Make sure he has someone to talk with that he trusts whenever something happens that upsets or scares him.
  • Show you child how to dial 911 and practice what he will say.
  • Explain to your child that even though the parent or caregiver may have done or said something to hurt him, they still love him very much. Let your child know that it is the illness that has caused the behavior.

If your child has symptoms of a mental health problem, talk with your child’s healthcare provider or a mental health professional.

For more information, contact:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-11-04
Last reviewed: 2014-10-27
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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