Mental health issues can strike at anytime, without warning and with little regard for your responsibilities. I knew my husband suffered from panic disorder when I married him. However, it wasn’t until a particularly stressful period at work that it became apparent that I was yet to see the worst of his condition.
By this point, we had a son, and it was clear he couldn’t understand what was happening to his daddy. Fortunately, children are smarter than we give them credit and can quickly adapt to take charge of situations, as long as they feel comfortable.
I was hesitant about explaining mental health to my son, but, since we had the conversation, he’s my biggest helper and an incredible support to his father.
If you’re struggling to broach this difficult topic, here are a few pointers:
Don’t Baby Them
Children see a lot more than we realize. Attempting to keep your kids in the dark if they have a mentally ill family member is a terrible tactic. Not only will they still see the difficulties, but they also won’t understand them, and this will quickly turn to fear.
Being as honest as you can with your child prevents them from feeling isolated. Particularly if the sufferer is a primary care figure; it’s actually easier to cause long-term trauma by shutting them out of the situation than by exposing them to it. It’s easy to feel like they’re too young to experience these sorts of things. However, knowledge is power – even when you’re little – and understanding strange behavior will allow them to still feel safe and in control.
However, there is a slight caveat to point one. Mental illness is complex, and most children’s brains aren’t developed enough to understand the intricacies of brain function. These means it’s important to find a relatable metaphor and description.
A personal favorite in our family is the ‘Hulk’ metaphor. As panic can quickly turn into rage and mental illness sufferers can lose their cool quickly, having a way to explain this to our son without him feeling at fault quickly became essential. The Incredible Hulk is a superhero who turns into a raging monster when he’s angry. This comparison is not only relatable and understandable, but it also comes from the child’s world. Using metaphors based on cartoons and comics can be an incredibly useful tool to help them see what having a mental illness means.
If you’re in this situation, it’s common to worry about information from other sources. While you can control how you address things with you child, there are many out here offering less-than-helpful information. However, here is another area where you child might surprise you.
Especially if they’re older, allowing their own research will let them feel like they can take control and will significantly increase confidence. Just to be sure to engage in discussions about their findings and encourage open dialogue. If you’re worried about internet safety, you can also install parental controls or a proxy service to protect them from online criminals.
Ask Their Feelings
The most powerful dialogue about mental health goes two ways. It doesn’t matter how well you word your explanation, if you aren’t receptive to your child’s thoughts and feelings, they can quickly end up feeling confused or isolated.
There are a few important check-in points for children:
- When you first offer an explanation, ask how they feel about what you’ve said.
- After particularly bad and potentially frightening attacks, talk about their emotions and quell their feels
- If possible, get the sufferer to speak with them so that they can understand you can still be a ‘normal’ person and have mental illness.
- The media can offer negative views of mental health patients. If you child is exposed to this, sit him or her down and discuss how they relate it to the situation at home.
While these points are a great place to start, in reality, it will always help to talk to your child about their feelings towards mental health. Having this open conversation means you can keep tabs on their responses. Plus, they will feel more comfortable to raise their worries and fears in the future.
Give Them Responsibility
Anyone who cares for a mental illness sufferer will know how quickly you can feel powerless. If you sincerely love someone, it’s difficult to see him or her in emotional distress. This lack of control can be one of the hardest elements to being a caregiver.
Although often overlooked, this fact is still true for the children and young relations of the mentally ill. They want to do what they can to help with the situation, so allowing them a small level of responsibility is key. Show them the medication schedule, and ask them to help remind you, or identify a small job they can do if there’s a particularly severe episode. This could be as simple as getting some pillows or a blanket or making a cup of water. Not only will it help their confidence with the situation, but it will also stop them from panicking if things get tricky.
Many put off addressing mental health issues with their children because they feel it will be too difficult. However, this is often not the case. Young people are incredibly resilient and will continually surprise you in their empathy to mental health patients. If you’ve been delaying this talk, follow these tips and ensure your child has a clear picture of their role in the situation.
Caroline Black is a writer and blogger who has become a primary caregiver for her sister. She writes about health, as well as sharing her experiences and insight with mental health and how it affects those around them.