13 Ways Parents With Mental Illnesses Explain It to Their Kids

For the mothers and fathers who live with a mental illness, parenting can be that much more stressful. The National Comorbidity Survey found that around one half of mothers and one third of fathers have dealt with a mental illness at some point during parenthood. Parents are often conflicted about how to care for their child and themselves, as well as how to explain their mental illness to their children.

We asked the parents in our community who live with a mental illness how they explain their mental illnesses to their children.

Here’s what they had to say:

1. “My daughter was 5 when I developed a mental illness. We explained that I am sick and had to be in the hospital. That my mind was sick. That when I took medicine and got better I could go home. We just keep it simple. She is young. But she understands the meaning of what it means to be sick. My mind is not feeling good. Why should it be so hard? A brain can be sick too, you know.”

2. I once explained to my 6-year-old that my bipolar disorder gives me racing thoughts by telling her it made me feel like I was reading a book upside down and backwards. She thought it was difficult and silly, and I agreed!”

3. I think my son has anxiety like me, so I told him Mommy sometimes worries about stuff she can’t control but I don’t let it ruin my day or control my life. I think of happy thoughts or happy times and that makes me relax. He understood. I explained my bipolar similarly stating that Mommy just has a shorter fuse than most people and that I either get sad or mad faster.”

4. “I told my daughter that Mommy is sick but her sickness is not seen with a stuffy nose or a fever but rather it tends to make Mommy sad at times where she cries a lot. It also makes Mommy panic a bit. Do not get scared; Mommy is working with a doctor and getting better.”

5. “For me with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and depression, I got lucky. Someone made videos on YouTube using the characters Piglet and Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh to explain as case studies for the disorders respectively. From 3 to 13, they got it in less than 10 minutes.”

6. “I tell them my brain works differently and sometimes I might feel sad, or angry, or scared, and it has nothing to do with anything they’ve done or not done. I tell them I see a doctor and take medicine to stay healthy, and that I talk to a therapist about my problems. And I tell them sometimes the medicine doesn’t work and I need to go to the hospital to get better.”

7. “I don’t sugarcoat my anxiety. My kids have seen me have attacks so they know what one looks like. I tell them my brain gets scared easier than theirs does and it sends me into a panic sometimes and then I have to take my medicine to help me. They understand.”

8. “I explain to my step-girls that the brain is a part of the body just like everything else and it can get sick. Sometimes the brain is like a computer and can be wired differently than you would expect. So sometimes, we (my husband and I) have to go to the doctor or Daddy takes medicine to help him. After we watched ‘Inside Out,’ my 11-year-old and I had a lot of conversations.”

9. I’m as honest as I can be. I tell them I love them, but being ill I sometimes don’t show it. I explained I have depression and it makes me sad. I always make sure they know it’s not their fault. I make sure they know they’re loved when I can.”

10. I’ve told them many different things. ‘Mommy’s brain works different, it doesn’t make enough of some of the chemicals that we need. So, I have to take medicine to replace the missing chemicals.’”

11. “Do you know how sometimes you feel shy or scared? Sometimes Mommy’s brain makes her feel like that when there’s no reason to. That’s why Mommy can’t do playdates all the time and she needs to stay home and relax. Mommy does her very best and you help Mommy be braver than she used to be. Everybody is different and some people are like your mommy and some people are like you or your daddy.”

12. “When she was younger, I told her the chemicals in Mommy’s brain just didn’t work right and sometimes I get really sad or upset for no reason, so I take medication. Really simplified but that’s all she needed to know. As she’s grown older, I have given her more information, and passed on some of my Dialectical Behavioral Therapy coping skills to her as well.”

13. “I first told my 4-year-old daughter that I have depression and that it’s a boo-boo in my head and my heart.”

Editor’s note: Not everyone experiences mental illness in the same way. These answers are based on individuals’ experiences.

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