Helping children understand their parent's mental illness

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It can be challenging to talk to children about a sensitive topic such as their parent's mental health difficulties. Nonetheless, it is essential that children be informed about their parent's mental illness and given the opportunity to express how their parent's health issues might be affecting them. This chapter will explore some of the issues related to having conversations with rather than to young people and, similarly, to “opening up” a discussion rather than “imposing” information. In this chapter, the term “children” refers to the offspring of those with a mental difficulty, illness, or disorder, and includes adolescents as well as younger children. It is our belief that supporting parents to hold conversations about their mental illness with their children, in an age-appropriate and sensitive manner, can empower parents by acknowledging their critical role within the family setting (Marston et al., 2014). In this way, parents are reinstated as the experts in their children's lives, often at times when they are feeling disempowered by the course of the illness and treatments. Acquiring and applying these skills is not necessarily easy, however. Within this context, it might be helpful to consider what it is like for parents to discuss with their children other sensitive or personal topics such as sex, divorce, death, or a physical illness and the skills that parents might need to do this, and issues or problems parents and children might encounter during and after such discussions. Thus, the skills used to discuss parental mental illness could well be generalized into other family conversations. A parent's mental illness is often the “elephant in the room” or the shameful secret that everyone knows is there but no one talks about. Mental illness is likely to affect the parent's behavior, which the child might notice but not always understand. Within these families' systems, children need to be provided with a framework for understanding what is happening in their family and given permission to talk and ask questions. Moreover, strategies are required to counterbalance the pervasive negative stereotypes and stigma often associated with mental illness within and outside the family.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationParental Psychiatric Disorder: Distressed Parents and their Families
EditorsAndrea Reupert, Darryl Maybery, Joanne Nicholson, Michael Göpfert, Mary V. Seeman
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages9
ISBN (Electronic)9781107707559
ISBN (Print)9781107070684
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2015

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