Last week I was lucky enough to have an interview with author Michelle Vasiliu who writes children’s books about mental health. Being able to talk to children about this difficult subject can be daunting for some parents, but often necessary, especially if a parent is going through their own mental health problems and wants their children to understand why they might behave differently to before. But how can we approach these subjects with children?
Author Michelle Vasiliu has already published a couple of picture books which can help adults and children understand living with a parent with bi polar (Me and My Sad Mummy) and depression (Together Things). But today on the blog she has kindly put together some interesting points to consider when approaching this subject, as well as some practical tips on how you can talk to your children about mental illness:
Points to consider when talking to children about mental illness
· Most children worry less about something if they understand it. Providing children with opportunities to talk with their parent or other trusted adults about their parents’ behaviours may help reduce their worries. If they don’t understand or have things explained to them, they may make up for gaps in knowledge that may in fact be wrong.
· Children often express great relief at knowing that their parent is safe, receiving treatment, or that it is not their fault that their parent became unwell.
· Mental illness is poorly understood by most people. This means that the stigma of mental illness can prevent people talking about it, its effect on families and the person with the illness and how to seek help when needed.
· Many parents who are living with mental illness worry about the effect this may have on their families and on their children. They may think that if they talk openly about their illness and how it makes them feel, that their children will be frightened, confused, embarrassed, or won’t understand anyway. Sometimes families decide to keep the illness a secret even from close family members such as grandparents.
· It can be hard to find the right words to use to explain mental illness to children. Adults often find it difficult to talk to other adults about how they feel! Parents may not feel comfortable discussing this with their children. Children are better off with accurate, age appropriate information and this is almost always best coming from their parent/s or other significant adults from their family and/or friend network. If children ask questions about their mum’s or dad’s mental health for instance, this usually means they want answers.
· Chose a space and a time which is comfortable for parents and their children, ideally, somewhere you won’t be disturbed.
· Involve family members wherever possible and be clear about the purpose and scope of the discussion. Be realistic about what can be achieved.
· Check with children what they think and what they already know about their parent’s illness. Sometimes parents don’t think their children worry because they don’t ask questions. It is important to not assume that being quiet means they understand. Talking to children about what they understand is happening and what they have noticed about how their parent is behaving is an important first step. It can also dispel any myth they may have that it should not be talked about.
· Reassure Children who may feel uncomfortable talking about their parent’s illness. In particular, they may be reluctant to express sadness or anger for fear of causing worry or concern. Furthermore, children are very loyal. It is important that children are told that adults understand they may be feeling uncomfortable or worried and they may not feel like talking much.
· Listen carefully. Don’t try to interpret what children are asking or have experienced. Instead ask questions to check you have understood properly what they have told you.
· Ask open-ended questions. Greater discussion will occur when your questions require more than a simple yes or no response. Encourage children to put things in their own words.
· Be yourself. Use a clear simple manner and avoid using tones that imply pity or could sound patronising. In particular, avoid jargon.
· For young children have paper, coloured pencils and play dough at the ready. These mediums often help children to express their feelings when words don’t come easily.
· Keep your first discussion simple.
· You might tell them, just as you can break your leg or get a physical illness, your mind can also be sick or broken.
· You might decide to ask them if they’ve noticed any unusual behaviour and then explain it’s because of the illness. They should know how the illness may directly impact on them and others in the family.
· One discussion is generally not enough as children’s questions and needs for information will change as they grow.
· Talk to your children about recovery, tell them that people can manage their mental illness and live really good lives.
· Use books or movies to help you discuss mental illness.
-Information based on the Children of Parents with a Mental Illness (COPMI) website.
About Michelle Vasiliu
Michelle Vasiliu has been a teacher and youth-worker among many roles working with children. She is now an award-winning children’s and YA author who writes sensitive, serious, sometimes sad stuff. She likes to help her readers understand and make sense of their world. She also writes fictitious, funny, frivolous stuff — just because she can.
About her latest book
Together Things book blurb:
Her dad used to be fun, but now he’s sad. As her father tries to get better, a young girl finds new ways to connect with him. He might not be able to play with her as he used to, but they can still show their love for each other. They just need to find different ‘together things’ to do.
Thank you very much to Michelle for these excellent thoughts and tips. I think talking about mental health is important no matter what age you are, but it’s epecially important to talk to kids as they can often blame themselves or not understand fully why their parent or other adult in their life is acting differently.
What do you think of these tips? Have you tried speaking to your children about mental health or illness? Let me know what you think in the comments below 🙂