How to Tell Your Child About Your Mental Health Struggles

What is the best way to share my mental health diagnosis with my child?

There is no simple answer to that question. It will depend on the child—their age and level of maturity. It will also depend on the child’s current circumstances. We never want children to adopt the role of “parent” to their moms and dads. And we never want children to feel like they are somehow to blame for how their parents are feeling. Sometimes though, circumstances would require the child to have some understanding of what is happening for their parent. This is especially true if they needed to stay with an extended family member temporarily during a parent’s treatment.

If a parent is struggling with mental health challenges, it is critically important to get help. It’s not only necessary for the parent’s wellness but also for the health of the family as a whole. An important part of treating mental illness is therapy. And the therapist involved can help a parent navigate the disclosure process with the child. They may even encourage the parent to bring the child into a session to discuss the diagnosis during a family therapy session. If parents are ever in doubt about how their mental health is affecting the wellbeing of their child, they should reach out to a child psychologist or therapist. Getting your child help, while you are receiving help, would be an excellent idea.

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Mental Health Advice

The first step is always to talk to your family doctor to see if there is any support available that would be covered by your provincial health care plan. Unfortunately, there are often long wait times for this help. So if you do not have extended medical that covers psychotherapy, you may need to reach into your savings or ask for financial assistance from others to pay for the treatment you need. Until our governments recognize the value of providing coverage for most mental health services we need to find other ways to get what is needed to heal. As hard as it may be to spend the money required, this is not the time to be frugal. Your mental health is tied to the health of every other area of your life.

With all of this in mind, here are some guidelines for how to disclose your mental illness to your child:

Mental Health And Preschool & Younger:

Children this young typically do not need to know the diagnosis. This is a time to shelter stress, as much as is possible, from your child. Ask family and friends to come in and help you with the children as much as possible.

Early Elementary School:

Children this young should be sheltered similarly to preschool children, except they could likely handle you explaining that you are “not feeling well.” It is important to reassure them and tell them not to worry about you. Explain that you are getting help and will be better soon.

Mid-Elementary School:

Children at this age could manage knowing a little more. You could explain that you do not “feel well in your mind” or “in your heart.” It will still be very important to reassure them, be clear that this is not their fault in any way and explain that you are getting the best help available. Leave them with a feeling of hope that things will be better soon.

Older Elementary School & Middle Years:

Older kids could handle a name for what you are facing. You could say, “I have an illness called depression. It means that I have deep feelings of sadness inside me that I cannot shake off. I’m drained of my energy and makes me want to sleep all the time. It is nobody’s fault. It is not my fault, and it is certainly not your fault!” Share with your child everything that you are doing to feel better and give them hope that things will be better soon.

Adolescents & Young Adults:

This is the time to have the kind of conversation you may have been wanting to have with your child for a while. They could handle more detailed information. It’s generally an appropriate time to explain the medical basis for the mental illness. You can talk about genetic factors and environmental factors. You could explain in more depth the treatment you are receiving. Or you can give your children updates on how you’re doing and what your medical professionals are suggesting. You can also ask a child of this age for a little assistance. Ask them to help around the house. Ask them to go for walks with you. Allow them a sense of agency and give them a way to participate in the family’s goal of getting you better. This is also the time to talk to your adolescent children about any genetic risk factors they may have inherited and what to be on the lookout for in their own lives. Talk about what it means to practice good mental health care.

When the time is right, I would encourage you to bring the notion of advocacy into these discussions with your children. Discuss how your family can raise awareness about mental health and spread the message that the world needs to lose the stigma and focus on getting help to those who need it.

Finally, some parents find it helpful to keep a journal where they write to their child about what is happening for them during their illness, how they are feeling and how they are trying to get better. They save this journal and share with their children once they are adults. This can help the children understand what the parent was going through during a time when they were too young to hear the full story, and may even provide meaningful insight if they are struggling with mental health challenges of their own.

Dr. Jillian Roberts
Dr. Jillian Roberts
Dr. Jillian Roberts is a child psychologist, UVic professor and mother. She is the CEO & Founder of FamilySparks and the author of Kids, Sex and Screens: Raising Strong, Resilient Children in the Sexualized Digital Age.