I’ve always struggled to be open and honest with my two daughters, now ages 12 and 15. I’m a nonfiction writer who shares much of my private life with readers around the world, so withholding my own bipolar diagnosis from my kids until this past year was a difficult decision—particularly in light of my firm belief that the stigma of mental illness should be eliminated.
In fact, publishing an essay about writing during manic episodes helped me push past my fears that my daughters wouldn’t respect me, take me less seriously, write off my feelings as “just part of my illness,” or worse: worry about the hereditary implications for their own mental health.
But through the revealing process with my loving, supportive daughters—and subsequent research—I learned that I should have started the conversation long ago, just like our talks about other challenging topics, such as: drugs and sex that began before kindergarten.
Here are 10 reasons why you need to be open and honest with your children about your mental illness:
1. When children don’t know the reasons for things, they blame themselves and fill in the blanks. The last thing a parent wants is for their children to take responsibility for the parent’s moods, or to make up scary reasons why the parent is acting unusually.
2. You can limit the information to your child’s age. When they were ages five and three, during the hours I couldn’t get out of bed after crashing with a migraine, I told my kids that I had a “bad headache.” And later, I explained that some of my many pills prevented those migraines.
But eventually I could have explained the mood stabilizer, saying, “It helps the part of my brain that keeps me from getting too sad or too excited because not everyone’s brain works the same way.”
3. I was always worried about my children using certain— potentially triggering—drugs and they didn’t understand why. I trace the onset of my bipolar disorder to a combination of different SSRI’s—after a history of bipolar disorder in my family—and two series of prednisone treatments. As a result, I always list oral steroids as an “allergy” on any medical charts or forms for both my girls. But until I told them about my bipolar disorder, I could never explain why.
4. A lack of information—the unknown—can increase anxiety. Studies indicate children may even worry that the situation is worse than the reality. Not knowing the cause of my sometimes-erratic behavior may have caused my daughter’s increased anxiety. I don’t know if it’s better now that they know, but I can relate to the anxiety of the unknown.
5. Children need mental health information to complete medical history forms for doctors, insurance, camps, college applications, etc. Older children take on more responsibility for filling out their own health forms and answering questions at the doctor’s office, especially when they’re away from home. Because of the hereditary nature of many mental health disorders, this information now must be included on many of those forms.
6. Resentment can build from failing to tell children earlier. Both my daughters’ eyes filled with tears when I told them about my mental illness, but not from fear or anxiety. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” my older daughter asked.
Once my daughters realized that other people knew and that I planned to write about it, they felt somewhat betrayed that I hadn’t told them first. I was their mother, and they felt the right to know as much or more about me than other people, and certainly more than strangers.
7. Evidence suggests that talking with children openly about an illness builds trust to help the family cope. Luckily, my girls forgave me quickly and seemed to accept my delayed disclosure without long-term harm. We don’t discuss it frequently, but they know they can ask me questions.
8. Often kids have their own concerns about inheriting mental illness that they need to work through. Children may express particular anxiety about the likelihood of inheriting certain mental illnesses.
9. Talking reduces stigma. Kids need to know it’s okay to seek help from a professional when they need it. We all make parental decisions we wish could take back. My silence deepened the stigma only words could break through.
10. Talking about your own mental illness can uncoil the broader topic, allowing children to explore the issue openly with you, and reach out for assistance when they face personal challenges.