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Discussing mental illness with your child

It's important to tell your child about your (or your partner's) mental illness - but are you prepared?

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The same principle used in aircraft emergencies really helps here: put your own oxygen mask on before attempting to help others. In other words, before you talk to your children about your illness, do you really understand it – and have you got yourself ‘in order’?

Understanding the effects of the illness on your behaviour and treatments and support available to you helps you to manage. It’s important for your family too, because when you understand what’s happening you will feel more in control and confident in explaining it to them - particularly your children.

Why tell my child?

Mental illness will likely affect your behaviour which your child might notice but not understand. Talking about the illness helps explain any changes they've noticed in you and the family unit. Without an explanation, they'll try making sense of it themselves. They may make assumptions, misunderstand what is happening and blame themselves.

But how do I tell my child?

You'll need to consider your child’s age and ability to understand information. Even very young children can gain some understanding of what's going on, if told “mummy’s not well, you’ve done nothing wrong and she’s getting help so she can get better.”

When you start the conversation, children are likely to ask questions. You won’t necessarily have all the answers, but being prepared really helps. One discussion is never enough – a shared understanding takes time and children’s questions and needs for information change as they grow. Encourage your children to ask questions or raise concerns whenever they want. 

We have prepared some helpful information sheets (below) on speaking to children of different age groups about parental mental illness to help.