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Challenge: Open Discussion

Talking To Your Kid About Mental Illness...When It’s Your Own

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You may feel like you’re the only person struggling to balance anxiety, depression, or any other mental health condition with parenting responsibilities.

But that’s likely only because societal stigma often keeps people from speaking out about mental illness.

In reality, over 43 million adults experienced some kind of mental illness in 2015, according to an infographic designed by the online msw from the University of Southern California. Aside from parenting, those struggling with mental illness face myriad hurdles including barriers to effective mental health care and an increased use of illicit drugs.

Parents may have the instinct to withhold information about mental illness from their children for protection. But being transparent actually helps young people make sense of their experiences. Children can perceive when something is off in their environment, according to Psych Central, and without details, can develop more harmful anxieties and misinformation.

But while mental health professionals agree that being open with children is optimal, they also suggest approaching the subject in a deliberate fashion.

Experts stress the need for open and honest communication. Parents should be sure not to pass along any shame or stigma regarding mental illness and make plenty of room for answering children’s questions.

Over at Psychology Today, Elana Sandler suggests families dealing with mental illness adopt some of Dr. Christine Wittman’s methods for talking to children of parents with cancer. For example, parents should consider the developmental stage of children, as a teenager can likely understand more specific details about a diagnosis than a young child.

Sander and Wittman also suggest paying mind to children’s temperament and communication style. Shy children will have different conversational needs, for example, than talkative ones. One idea posed is to give children a journal where they can write questions and a parent can write answers. This allows communication to take place for children who might not feel comfortable opening up in person.

Before sitting down for a discussion, parents should also be sure to prepare for their children’s emotional reactions. Mental Health America discusses how these can vary widely from child to child, ranging from shame, to anger, to increased empathy, to sadness to relief. Make sure to guide children through their emotional experiences.

Many experts also recommend parents seek the help of a mental health professional. They can discuss with a therapist what they plan to say in conversation, and/or schedule individual or family counseling sessions that specifically address their children’s needs.

Societal pressure to be the “perfect parent” can deter caregivers from frankly addressing their mental illnesses. But being honest and reassuring can actually help prevent the confusion and self-blaming that can occur in children living in more secretive households. Open, educational communication equips children with the tools to understand mental illness and can potentially increase their empathetic capacities.

Parenting while mentally ill can be a daily struggle. But discussing that mental illness with children can foster an understanding that it’s okay for humans to have flaws -- and to be upfront about them.

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