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Helping Children Understand Mental Illness: A Resource For Parents And Guardians

Mental illness can be frightening -- not only to the person who has it but also to people around them. If you are a child and reliant on the care of an adult who has a mental illness, things can be even more confusing. Children may have a number of questions, such as "Why is my mom or dad this way?" "Will I become this way?" and "Who will take care of me if my mom or dad is sick?"

If a child you care for has a parent with a mental illness, it is important to take time to address their questions and concerns. Helping a child understand their parent's or guardian's illness will make the illness seem less 'frightening' and give the child the tools they need for a more confident, safe and happy life.

Here are some tips that may help when talking to a child about mental illness and answers to some commonly asked questions.

Topics include:

~Ideas To Encourage Conversation
~Helping Children With Their Feelings
~Helping Children Understand The Illness
~Helping Children Feel Good About Themselves
~Helping Children Feel Safe And Secure
~Helping Children Learn Effective Verbal And Behavioral Responses
~Responses To Some Commonly Asked Questions

Ideas To Encourage Conversation
It can be less threatening to start by asking children why they think their mom/dad sometimes acts "different" or "strange," then use their comments or questions as an opening to talk more about mental illness.

If you think a child wants to talk to you but is afraid to open up, here are some questions you might want to ask them. It is important to remember, though, that if a child does not want to talk to you, you should not force them. Just let them know that you are there for them and ready to listen if they do want to talk.

Children may feel guilty about being embarrassed by their parent's illnesses. Ask a child about the way their parent acts and how it makes them feel. Explain that mental illness can make parents act in strange, confusing or scary ways sometimes; ask how that makes them feel.

Children often feel responsible for their parent's illness or feel as though it is somehow their fault. Asking a child if they ever feel as though there is something they could do to make the problem go away or if they somehow feel they are to blame for the way their mom/dad has been acting is one way to start this conversation. Just be very careful that, in asking, you don't imply (or let the child feel you imply) that this is somehow their fault. Another approach might be to say, "You know I sometimes wish there was something I could do/or wish I had done differently to make your mom/dad better. But I know that mental illness is nobody's fault . . . "

If a child asks you a question you don't know how to answer, be honest and tell them you don't know, but you will try to find out.....

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