Approximately 20 per cent of Canadians will experience mental illness over the course of their lives. When a family member is diagnosed with mental illness, it can be difficult to explain what’s happening to a child. Dr. Sandra Mendlowitz, Psychologist in the Anxiety Program and Project Investigator at SickKids, and Assistant Professor in the Department of Child Psychiatry at the University of Toronto, has some advice for parents.
- Tailor your explanation to the age of the child. “Young children often blame themselves when a relative, particularly a parent is ill, so it’s important to remind them that it’s not their fault,” says Mendlowitz. Older children may have more detailed questions, especially with regard to whether, or how, it may affect them.
- Be honest. “If you don’t know the answer, you need to say so and come up with a plan to find the answer,” says Mendlowitz. For example, if a teen asks how long the illness will last and you don’t know, or cannot give an answer, you can say: “That’s a very good question. I’m going to speak to my doctor to try and find out the answer to your question.” It’s important to follow through with the promise and provide an answer, adds Mendlowitz.
- Ensure the child’s safety. “Children, at any age, are extremely vulnerable in these situations and violence and/or abuse is never acceptable, even in the presence of mental illness,” says Mendlowitz. Parents should create a safety plan that can protect the child from violent or erratic behaviour. At a minimum, the child should be given the name of someone they can go to if they do not feel safe and do not feel they can speak to their parents.
- Role model good coping behaviours. Children commonly worry they will also experience mental illness when a family member is ill, especially if the family member is very debilitated. “Parents need to reassure their child that they are there for support. If parents model good coping and model help-seeking behaviors, their children will be assured they too will be able to access help if needed in the future.”
Mendlowitz recommends some more helpful strategies for parents who are looking for a way to discuss mental illness in a family member with a child:
- Provide good resources for the child, such as books or web pages that can help the child understand. Timely and accurate information can help calm fears.
- Don’t stigmatize the family member’s disorder.
- Remind the child it is good to talk about what is bothering us and discuss feelings, especially when we struggle.
- Provide strong extended family, peer and community support.
- Continue with the child’s external and social activities, such as sports.
“A parent’s own coping skills may be diminished in times of crisis, making it difficult to address the topic adequately with the child,” Mendlowitz adds. “Parents should try to seek help if they can.”