Mental illness is complex and can be difficult to understand — especially when it affects a family member. Children experience a plethora of emotions and reactions to a parent's mental illness that can leave them feeling scared and unstable. This instability is exacerbated when the mental illness is kept in the dark. But children are perceptive, and pick up on subtle changes in the family dynamic caused by mental illness.
Imagine this common scenario:
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 children 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 children 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 children 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. The child holds in these feelings so as to not burden either of the parents with any more stress.
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While mental illness is challenging, there are things you can do to help your child cope with the effects of your or your spouse's diagnosis. It starts by bringing the illness into the light.
1. Education. Acknowledge the mental illness by giving it a name. In an age-appropriate manner, help your child 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 your child about your spouse's mental illness, the more you will alleviate some of their fears, confusion, and insecurities.
2. Open communication. Communication is the greatest support you can give to your child. You can do this by validating what they are noticing and experiencing within the family. If you feel unable to adequately talk your child about your the mental illness, find a professional who can help you better communicate with your child — that is a common practice, and nothing to be ashamed of.
3. Let your child know that it's neither his/her fault nor responsibility. A child may naturally feel as though it is their responsibility to to fix their parent. Reassure your child that mental illness is an actual illness that is not their responsibility. Support your child by holding your spouse accountable to seek professional treatment.
4. Don't use your child as a surrogate spouse. Don't let your child become your main confidant when you are experiencing difficulties with your spouse as a result of mental illness. Let your child be a kid; don't burden them with the responsibility of trying to make you feel better. A child will feel safe when you remain the parent.
5. Give your child the space and freedom to have his or her own emotions about the challenges that accompany mental illness. Living with a parent who has mental illness isn't easy. Give your child the freedom and space to openly talk about his or her feelings. Learn to listen to your child without judging or minimizing. Avoid saying things like, "You shouldn't feel that way."
6. Talk openly as a family. Your child may feel it is necessary to hide his or her feelings of fear or anxiety of disappointing you or causing more stress. Family communication and good listening skills are key to keeping the family together, as well as taking the shame and embarrassment out of the mental illness.
7. Let your child know that 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 allow you to be a better support to both your spouse and your child.
8. Create time and space for your child. Find time to engage in family activities. Don't let the mental illness define the household atmosphere. Fun family activities will help your child know that there is still stability and normalcy in the household.
9. Reassure your child that they are loved. Help your child know that the mood associated with the mental illness is not equated with a lack of love for the child. Encourage your spouse to openly communicate with your child, when he or she is having a bad day. This will reassure the child and relieve the pressure of having to guess the parent'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 child by keeping the emotional atmosphere positive and stable. Give your child the freedom to have fun.
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