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October 29, 2014
by Marti Wormuth, MA

Explaining Mental Illness to Children

October 29, 2014 10:40 by Marti Wormuth, MA  [About the Author]

Sometimes, someone in our family or one of our family friends may have a mental health issue, and there are children in the family who may not understand what is going on. That means that family members may have to take the time to talk to children about the effects of mental illness and how they are to treat the person that they are related to. It can be a bit of a difficult topic to approach with a child, which is why I've decided to talk about it a bit here, in the hopes that you can learn how to approach this sensitive topic with the children in your life. 

Why Does Mental Health Have to Be Explained to Children? 

It Teaches the Child Compassion

Many people choose not to discuss mental health with their children at all, and even though this decision can be respected, it's really not helpful to anyone that is involved. If something like a mental health emergency were to happen, the child would not be able to understand and they would be asking a lot of questions during a time that is already stressful for everyone that is involved. By offering even the most basic information to a child about mental illness, you're opening the door to understanding, acceptance, and compassion that they may not have had access to unless they understood what was going on with their friend or loved one.

It Affects Many Families 

Also, mental illness is something that affects a lot of families. Even if you don't know anyone right now, helping your child to understand mental illness at a young age allows them to have sensitivity and empathy for those who may be going through it. Chances are, sometime in their childhood or adolescence, they will encounter someone who is going through a mental illness, and they will be better prepared to encounter the person and help them work with it.

The Child Might One Day Have a Mental Illness

One last reason it is important is because, if the child were to start to struggle with a mental illness themselves, they would likely be less afraid of it. Yes, mental illness is scary no matter how much you know about it, but being prepared with information and logic can help thwart off some of the fear that happens. It also helps your children to understand that mental health issues are real and they are a concern; they aren't just something that has been "made up" in order for a person to get sympathy. 

So, as you can see, talking about mental health issues with children is a big deal, and it should be taken seriously. You, as the parent, have the choice as to when you should talk to your child. Some people start talking to their children at a young age; others don't talk to their child about it until they are a pre-teen or teenager, but either way, in today's world, it's something that should be discussed and understood as soon as possible. 

How Should We Go About Discussing Mental Health to Children?

There are a few things that you can do in order to talk about mental health issues with children. Here are some of the things that you need to keep in mind in order to keep the conversation open and to help the child to fully understand what is going on with the situation. 

Keep the conversation appropriate for their age level. Obviously, older kids will understand better than younger ones, so make sure that what you say is age appropriate and helps them to understand instead of being afraid. Younger children may only need a brief explanation in order to understand what is going on, whereas an older child may have many more questions and may try to get a real grip on what is going on. Be ready with some resources if the child you are talking to is in their teens. 

Ask the child if they've noticed any differences in you (or the person in question) that they are concerned about. Sometimes, things start to change when someone starts to struggle with mental illness, and it can be really hard for a child to understand the changes in behavior that are occurring. By asking this question, you can see how much the child currently knows and help them to understand why those changes are occurring in the person in question. It can be a really good place to start the whole conversation, and it can help them get a better "grip" on what you're telling them. 

Always be aware of what the child's reaction is, and answer questions that they may have. Mental illness, or any illness really, can be scary to talk about, especially for a child that may not fully understand what is going on with it. Watch how your child reacts, slow down if they seem to be getting nervous and uncomfortable, and pause in order to answer their questions. By making the conversation a calm and safe place, you're going to be more likely to help them understand and you will be able to answer their questions in a way that helps them to help the person in question. If they get really upset, ask if they want you to stop the conversation for awhile and to talk more about it later - you want them to be able to understand it without really stressing them out over it. Be calm, make it comfortable, and keep it open. 

Let them know that the person in question is still the same person, but that they may act differently than they're used to. This is hard for both children and adults to understand. Just because someone is struggling with a mental illness doesn't mean that they are any different than the person that they have always known. If you can, have the person in question there so that they can talk about the illness more clearly, and offer comfort to the child when they start to understand what is going on with their friend or loved one. That way, they are not afraid of the person that you're talking about, but instead feel comfortable talking to them and still maintain the relationship that they have always had. This is probably the most important thing to do, because sometimes children become avoidant or scared when someone seems to change their behavior in a way that they don't fully understand otherwise. 

Talk with their school's counselor or another mental health professional. Sometimes, we just don't know what to say because we don't fully understand what is going on ourselves. Because of that, you may want to enlist the help of someone who is trained to work with people who have mental health issues. They can help talk to your child about the issues, and they can give a perspective that is professional and geared toward your child's age, so that they have a better overall understanding of the subject and can "get it" at the mental level that your child is currently at. Not only that, but the professional may be able to help you understand how to deal with the whole thing better as well. If you're already in therapy, see if your specialist can help you to talk to your child - many times, they will do so and it will be beneficial for everyone that is involved. Professionals have been trained on these things, so let them do their job and they can really take a lot of stress and confusion off of you as the parent! 

Seek Out a Professional

So, as you can see, there are a lot of considerations that have to be made when talking to children about mental illness. These ideas are just the beginning too; if you need some suggestions about how to discuss this sensitive topic with children, talk to a therapist or a professional that works with children. There are plenty of resources available on the Theravive site that can help you to get in touch with these professionals, and you can feel more secure when you make the decision to talk to children about the entire issue. 


American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (2011, March). Talking To Kids About Mental Illnesses. Retrieved June 4, 2014, from

The Children of Parents with a Mental Illness. (n.d.). Discussing mental illness with your child. Retrieved June 4, 2014, from

Karma-White, K. (2014, March 6). 'Why would a mom do that?' How to talk to kids about traumas caused by parents . Retrieved June 4, 2014, from

Owen, S. (2013, May 13). Explaining mental illness to children. Retrieved June 4, 2014, from

Tartakovsky, M. (2010). Should You Tell Your Kids about Your Mental Illness? Retrieved June 4, 2014, from

About the Author

Marti Wormuth, MA Marti Wormuth, MA

Marti has a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology and a Master’s in Communication Studies. Her favorite activities include reading, playing games, and hanging out with the students at her church. Marti volunteers with the youth ministry at her church as a teacher and mentor. Because of this, she recently started another degree, her graduate certificate in student ministries. She considers her current graduate work to be a stepping stone to becoming a youth pastor or a published author.

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