A parent’s mental illness can leave a child feeling scared and unstable.
Dad’s mood changes. The whole household feels the effects. Everyone quickly switches gears, puts on their best behavior, and attempts not to cause any waves. Mom tries to put on a happy face and hopes that the kids don’t notice. Nobody mentions this change in mood, but the tension in the household is obvious.
Everyone quietly distances himself and waits for the storm to pass. The adults understand what is happening, but the kids are left to draw their own conclusions. They begin to wonder why mom and dad are acting differently. Why is dad so sad, or so angry? Why won’t he play outside like he used to?
The kids wonder, “Was it something I did to upset him? Maybe if I act just better or become invisible, I can fix things.” Feelings of fear, loneliness, and instability set in. Children hold in these feelings so as to not burden either of the parents with more stress.
That Is A Common Scenario
Mental illness is complex and difficult to understand, especially when it affects a family member. Kids experience emotions and reactions to a parent’s mental illness that leave them feeling scared and unstable. This instability is exacerbated when the mental illness is kept in the dark.
But kids are perceptive and pick up on subtle changes in the family dynamic caused by mental illness. While it’s challenging, there are things you can do to help your kids cope with the effects of your or your spouse’s diagnosis — here are 10 of them:
1. Acknowledge the Mental Illness By Giving It a Name
In an age-appropriate manner, help your kids understand that the behavior or mood changes they see in mom or dad are a result of a mental illness. The more information you can give them about your spouse’s mental illness, the more you will alleviate some of their fears, confusion and insecurities.
2. Provide Open Communication
Communication is the greatest support you can give to your kids. You can do this by validating what they are noticing and experiencing within the family. If you feel unable to adequately talk to them about the mental illness, find a professional who can help you communicate better — that is a common practice and nothing to be ashamed of.
3. Let Your Kids Know It’s Not Their Fault (Or Responsibility)
Kids may naturally feel as though it is their responsibility to to fix their parent. Reassure your them that mental illness is an actual illness that is not their responsibility. Support them by holding your spouse accountable to seek professional treatment.
4. Let Your Kids Be Kids
Don’t let them become your main confidants when you are experiencing difficulties with your spouse as a result of mental illness. Let them be kids and refrain from burdening them with the responsibility of trying to make you feel better. Kids feel safest when YOU remain the parent.
5. Let Your Kids Express Their Emotions About the Challenges They Face
Living with a mentally ill parent isn’t easy. Give them the freedom to openly talk about their feelings. Learn to listen WITHOUT judging or minimizing — avoid saying things like, “You shouldn’t feel that way.”
6. Talk Openly as a Family
Your kids may feel it is necessary to hide their fear and anxiety of disappointing you or causing more stress. Family communication and good listening skills are key to keeping the family together, as well as eliminating shame and embarrassment from mental illness.
7. Let Your Kids Know They Can Still Rely on You
Find a friend or a professional with whom you can talk when you begin to feel sad, angry, frustrated or overwhelmed with the family situation. Staying grounded and emotionally healthy will make you a better support to both your spouse and your kids.
8. Create Time and Space for Your Kids
Find time to engage in family activities. Don’t let the mental illness define the household atmosphere. Fun family activities show the kids that there is still stability and normalcy in the household.
9. Reassure Your Kids that They Are Loved
Show your kids that the mood associated with the mental illness is not equal to a lack of love for them. Encourage your spouse to openly communicate with them when he or she is having a bad day. This will reassure the them and relieve the pressure of having to guess your spouse’s mood.
10. Don’t Let the Mental Illness Dictate the Family Mood
While fully acknowledging that the mental illness is a part of the family, keep in mind that the household emotional dynamic doesn’t have to be dictated by the mental illness. You can support your kids by keeping the emotional atmosphere positive and stable. Give them the freedom to have fun!