So How Do You Tell Your Children About a Parent’s Mental Illness?

Telling our children about our mental illness can be a bit tricky at times. Just recently, my oldest son C has been asking questions about my Bipolar Disorder. I told him I would think about it and get back with him. I wanted to make sure that I could get all the analogy and terms so he could understand.

He has asked, “Mom, how do you get Bipolar Disorder?” “How long have you had it?” “Why does it make you act differently at times?” “Do you feel God hates you because of your illness?” I think you get the picture here. Honesty is an absolute must in telling your children about Bipolar. Don’t sugar-coat anything and be up front.

Our oldest son C is very smart and he takes things very seriously. I told him that sometimes genetics can make Bipolar show up and other times people just get it. Explaining this to him actually was pretty easy. He “got” everything I said to him. I explained that I was diagnosed as a young woman at 20 years old. Explaining why it makes a person act differently was the hardest thing about it. I thought long and hard and came up with this explanation. When we have a chemical imbalance in our brains people act differently because the chemicals aren’t balanced or working right. When those chemicals don’t work right our behaviors are different. I explained the highs and lows of Bipolar and how they make a person act. He was getting it and then asked me, “How come we can never predict your mood?”

That last question made me feel a bit guilty. I know I should not feel this way but I did. I had been stable for five and a half years then last September I crashed hard and haven’t been the same since. The cycling has been all over the place and my poor family has been at the mercy of my instability. I explained about rapid cycling and my psychiatrist trying to get my medications at the right dosages so I could function. I told him that mental illnesses are a science that researchers are constantly trying to figure out. They never know what medicines to use. And sometimes it takes a while to get the right medication combination to work.

So, how do you tell your kids about your Bipolar or other mental illness? Honesty and not sugar-coating this is a must. Try to put analogies in place so they can understand. Speak in “kid” terms. And one I have had lately asked me if he caused this illness. Of course I told him no and he had nothing to do with it. But that got me to thinking because he asked that.

And be sure and check in with your children to see how they are feeling about it. Ask them if they need to talk or have questions to ask.

Be open and honest and keep answering those questions!

3 thoughts on “So How Do You Tell Your Children About a Parent’s Mental Illness?

  1. Dustin:

    He knows I go to therapy. I am working on some tough stuff from my past and it’s taking longer than I wanted it to. He is OK with this and knows I want healing to take place. My other two kids don’t care too much.

    What do you mean by “outside meds”?


  2. This is a good question. From my viewpoint it depends on whether or not your spouse accepts and supports you in your illness, as to how you approach your children and also how they will receive what you have to share. In my case, my wife does not accept, and so my children do not really know who or what to believe. I can share this: My mom never came out and told me what was wrong with her for years. I spent all my childhood resenting her because she was never there, but was locked up in mental wards because of her behavior. I felt there was nothing really wrong with her except she simply did not want to be around her own children. It would have helped a lot if she had ever sat down and tried to explain to me and my brother what was going on so that we could at least try and understand that she was really ill and not just faking it, as we so arrogantly assumed. To folks out there who are Bi-Polar, tell your kids. How? I can’t say, but do not let them wonder why you may behave or enter into the strange moods that you do. It simply hurts too much for kid to go through that and not have an inkling why.

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