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How to Tell Your Child They Have a Mental Illness

Talking about your own mental illness is much easier than talking about your child’s. Parents would much rather have any type of problem rather than have their child suffer. Telling your child they have a mental health disorder can be difficult and provoke anxiety.

The best way to approach your child can be confusing. You don’t want them to be hurt or feel any different than their peers. You don’t want them to feel like they did something wrong or it is their fault they have a mental illness.

To make it less confusing, there are simple techniques to use when telling your child they have a problem. These will help them understand their disorder, why this is happening to them, and the steps you will take to help them.

Being prepared for your conversation, telling them the truth, answering questions and speaking to them in an age appropriate manner are all excellent ways to teach your child about his or her disorder.

Prepare for Your Conversation

You can prepare for the conversation with your child like you would prepare for any other meeting. Pick out a location that makes both of you feel comfortable. Make sure it is a safe zone for your child, a place they are familiar with and has a warm atmosphere.

You do not want to take them to a restaurant with many strangers and break the news to them while eating. You do not want to take them to the therapist’s office, introduce them to their counselor, and have the counselor break the news to them. Instead, sit with them on the living room couch, their bedroom or the kitchen table of your home, any place that your child associates with comfort.

Preparing for your conversation can also involve reading them a book about their disorder if they are younger. If they are older, offer them reading materials you printed from the internet or rented from the library. Providing them with literature gives them helpful knowledge.

Check Your Research

When offering them printed information about their mental illness, make sure it is accurate. You do not want to give them information from a website that turns out to be false information. This can be very confusing for a child and even damaging at times.

Instead, triple check the facts you research. Check the reviews for the website where you gather the information. Use government and other well-known sites such as National Institute of Health to find the information you need to share.

Age Appropriate Information

You will want to give your child information that matches their skill levels. It is not good to give a teenager a 200-page dissertation on attention deficit disorder. They most likely will never get to the end. Find a great YouTube video or movie to teach them about their disorder since most teens like to watch videos and are online often.

For younger children, picture books or PBS documentaries may help in explaining their mental illness. You do not have to re-invent the wheel and create a new platform for spreading your message.

There are many resources already created by talented professionals. All you must do is find the one that matches your child’s age level.

Honesty

It is not appropriate to tell your child they will be better in one year if you know their disorder is a life long struggle. Be honest with them. They can handle the truth.

The way you present the truth to them is what matters. Do not say to them,

    “Hey, get over it. This is how it is going to be. Might as well accept it.”

Instead, be gentle,

    “This may be hard for you to understand now but I will be by your side and we will do the best we can to find a solution.”

If you don’t have all the answers to their questions, be honest and tell them that you don’t know. Not having an answer is not as important as allowing them to ask questions about their mental illness. Do not make up an answer to seem more knowledgeable or to ease their worry.

They need to feel they can ask you anything and that you will give them honest feedback. If you don’t feel you can do this alone, partner with a specialist who can help.

Get Help

There are many qualified professionals who have the experience to answer all your child’s questions. After you have told your child about their mental illness, also explain to them that you will be going with them to visit a professional, whether counselor or doctor or both, to get the help they need.

Explain to them that a mental health professional can offer more detail about their disorder and what is needed to live a happy normal life despite having a mental illness. Living a happy and healthy life is very possible. There are many treatments available for every single mental illness.

Individual counseling, medications, family therapy, support groups, therapeutic support staff, and behavioral specialists are just a few of the therapies available for children with mental health disorders.

Make sure you seek professionals who have specialized experience in your child’s mental illness. If your child has a form of autism, seek help from an autism specialist, one that has both education and work experience helping children on the spectrum.

If your child has an eating disorder, seek help from an eating disorder specialist. If they suffer from anxiety, seek the help of a counselor who has years of experience teaching coping skills for anxiety.

Family therapy is also one of the best ways to ensure everyone in the family is on board with helping your child and learning what to do in times where the mental illness is a struggle. Families can also learn prevention methods that can limit the amount of mental health triggers a child may have.

Talking to your child about their mental health disorders is the right thing to do. If you are prepared and talk to them with respect and honesty, you will not mess up. Most importantly, your child needs to feel you love and support them no matter what disorder they have. While your child may have a journey ahead of them in learning to cope with their mental illness, it does not have to be something that keeps them from being a child.

Don’t put off telling your child. The sooner you talk to them, the sooner you both can overcome the obstacles they face, together.

 


Chris Massman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. Chris' training includes Family Systems Theory along with numerous other theories. She believes therapy is an art and chooses the theory she feels will most benefit the individual sitting in front of her. Her specialty lies is in the field of Chemical Dependency and Addictions. Chris is currently seeing individuals, couples and families. Chris is a Clinical member of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists as well as the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. Chris has two locations including Tarzana and Agoura Hills, CA.