Friday, May 9, 2014

5 Ways to Help a Child Deal With a Parent’s Mental Illness

I need to thank Gilly Cannon (@BringingComfort), who writes the Brainstorm blog, for the inspiration to write this article.  

Gilly’s son Jacob wrote “7 Ways To Help A Child Deal With A Parent Being Seriously Sick,” which Gilly posted on her blog.  It can be found here:  BRAINSTORM

I thought that there are many who could benefit from a similar article, focusing this time on the needs of children coping with a parent or family member with a mental illness.

Thank you Jacob, for being the spark that lit the flame today.

5 Ways to Help a Child Deal With a Parent’s Mental Illness:

1. Counseling:  Therapy is not just for you.  Your children are along for the ride whether you (and they) like it or not.  I know you’d like to protect them from it, and to some degree you’ll be able to cushion them from the gritty details, but let’s face it:  when someone in the home is coping with a mental illness, the rest of the household - and especially the children - are coping with your mental illness, too.  Nothing occurs in a vacuum, and mental illness impacts a family dynamic in many ways.  Seeking counseling for your child, so that they have the benefit of sorting it all out with a professional, is the responsible thing to do.  You can be as open and understanding as you want - and please do! - but there will always be things they don’t necessarily want to share with you.  The ironic thing about children affected by the mental illness of a parent or other family member is, they are going to try to protect you from their feelings and fears!  For instance, if they feel angry about their experience, they may also feel guilty for feeling that way - and won’t share that with you because they don’t want you to be hurt by it!  So you need to provide them with an outlet to express all that without having to worry about the emotional impact it could have on someone they love.  The beauty of a therapeutic relationship is that there is no baggage attached; we’re not family and we’re not friends and we’re not there to impose our opinion.  We’re there to listen, support, validate, and relieve the burden - without any emotional fallout attached.

2. Information: Children deserve to know what’s really going on.  They’re perceptive, too, and often understand more than you might think they do.  So before they get incorrect information somewhere else, explain things to them in an age-appropriate manner, ideally with the guidance of the counselor you’ve found for them! 

3. Comfort: Friends, parents, and other community supports fill an important role, and need to show the child that people also care about how they are feeling - even though they’re not the identified patient.  You can be sure that your child is feeling a lot, and that much of it is complicated and conflicted!

4. Keep them in the loop: Don’t do mental gymnastics to protect them.  My good friend and colleague, Steve Kinsella, LCSW ( is fond of repeating, “A family is only as sick as the secrets they keep.”  It’s important that if, for instance, a family member is suddenly hospitalized, there is an appropriate explanation given to the child.  They know quite well that people don’t normally disappear from their lives for 7 to 10 days without a reason attached, and if you plan on fabricating a story in an attempt to protect their innocence, be careful.  As I’ve mentioned, children are perceptive and, more than likely, your child already knows there’s something that’s not been quite right lately.  If you tell little white lies now, they’re going to resent it later, creating a much bigger issue - trust - than knowing would have done. Better to give an age-appropriate explanation that saves them the gritty details but is 100% truthful.  Of course, this also requires swallowing your pride.

5: Time to think:  Give them their space and don’t hover.  They’re going to need some time alone to think by themselves, sort it all out and to let it all settle in.  They’re grappling with some pretty big-picture questions here.  Give them room to do it.  

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