Supporting your child’s understanding of your mental illness

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2022

Resource Summary

This resource has been developed to help parents to understand how mental illness can impact parenting and learn practical strategies to help maintain a strong relationship between parents and children. It has been developed with the guidance of family members with lived experience, practitioners and researchers.

Emerging Minds acknowledges that families come in many forms. For the purposes of easy reading, the term ‘parent’ encompasses the biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child, as well as individuals who have chosen to take up primary or shared responsibility in raising that child.

Mental health can be a difficult topic to talk about with anyone, especially if you’re experiencing mental health difficulties yourself. It can be hard to know what to say, how much to say and how to say it. But talking to your child about your mental health difficulties can be really helpful for both of you.

This resource aims to:

  • help you understand the benefits of talking with your child and family about your mental illness
  • provide you with the tools to feel comfortable in having these sometimes-tricky conversations.

Why is talking about mental illness important?

Many parents who experience mental health difficulties shy away from talking about it with their children, because they think it’s the best way to protect them from stress and confusion. Yet research and the lived experience of parents and children show that when parents talk openly about their struggles in language their child can understand, it actually helps their child to cope better.1

When your child doesn’t understand what is happening in the family, they can worry, feel alone and misunderstand the situation. They may feel personally responsible and worry about your health and safety. By teaching your child about mental illness and your experience, they can feel relieved in the knowledge that although you’re unwell, you’re receiving help and doing what you can to live your best life.

It can also help your child to make sense of the changes that they observe when you’re unwell; to know how to help; and importantly, to understand that your illness is not their fault. Talking to children about mental illness openly in an age-appropriate way can also help remove stigma, encourage them to ask for help, and develop the foundations of resilience, which will ultimately benefit them as they navigate life’s challenges in the future.2

‘I thought when the doctors told Dad that Mum had a mental illness she was going to die – that was scary. Everyone was so serious and didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to do either. I wish someone had of talked to me.’

– Matt, son of a mum with mental illness

Talking with children about mental health difficulties early in life can help remove stigma, encourage them to ask for help and teach them how to cope with adversity.

What might my child notice about my mental illness?

Children understand the world around them in different ways, depending on their age and stage of development.

Babies and toddlers might not understand everything we say, but from a very early age, children are sensitive and respond to the emotions of those around them. They register your tone of voice and facial expressions and are highly sensitive to even the smallest changes.

In contrast, school-aged children will attempt to piece together clues from what they see, hear and feel to help them understand the cause of these changes. They will look to you and the adults around them to help make meaning of their experiences. When an explanation is missing, children often create their own beliefs about the cause. They may come to believe that they are at fault for your illness, that it’s their responsibility to make you feel better, or that something is being hidden from them.

At any age, despite your attempts to mask any mental health difficulties or protect your children from the impacts, they will often pick up on changes in your behaviour and body language. It may be that you are excessively tired, teary, or quieter than normal; or perhaps reacting more harshly to things that you wouldn’t normally.

In the following video (25 sec), Child and Family Partner Skye talks about the uncertainty of having a parent with a mental illness.

It’s important to consider what your child may experience and how you can prepare for these discussions in relation to their age, so let’s discuss this further.

It’s important to remember that experiencing mental health difficulties does not make you a bad parent. It’s possible to keep your relationship with your child on track, even when things are tough.

Understanding your child’s experiences

Thinking about how your symptoms and current changes in behaviour, facial expressions and tone of voice may be experienced by your child is important. To do this, think about what your child would be seeing and hearing, and how this might impact on how they’re feeling.

It can be helpful to consider the following questions:

  • What might your child read from your facial expressions or body language?
  • What might they hear in the tone of your voice?
  • How might these make them feel?
  • Might any of your behaviours worry your child?
  • What have you noticed about their reactions towards you?
  • How is their daily life impacted (e.g. changes in their routines)?

As a parent, it can be challenging to think about how your child views what is happening, particularly when you may still be making sense of it yourself. Just because you’re a parent, it doesn’t mean you’re unaffected by life’s challenges. Life can be tricky at the best of times; if you’re finding things particularly difficult or are worried about managing your mental illness and its effect on your parenting, visiting your GP can be a good start in getting the support you need. To learn more about the role of a GP, watch this video.

It’s also important to remember that your mental health challenges do not make you a bad parent. It’s possible to keep your relationship with your child on track, even when things are tough.

Most children want to know more about the causes of a parent’s behavioural changes and what treatment is being sought. Next, you’ll find some suggestions which can help you when talking with your child about mental illness and what you’re experiencing.

Starting the conversation about your mental illness

Starting the conversation can be the hardest part. Understandably, it may be hard to find the energy when you’re struggling yourself, or you may worry how your children will react. If you need some suggestions check out our guide to starting the conversation about mental illness with your child, which includes suggestions on what you might say, where to do it, and when. 

‘…it’s better to start the conversation, than to leave it, because the longer you do leave it, the more difficult it can become.’

– Jaisen, father of four, Tasmania

Communicating with your baby about your mental health

A child’s need for information changes as they grow. For example, there’s no need to explain your mental health challenges to your baby – but parents may notice that when they’re struggling with difficult moods and emotions, their baby’s responses also change.

Here are some simple things you can do that will help your baby feel comforted and secure, even if you’re experiencing difficulties:

  • Smiling while looking at them.
  • Maintaining eye contact until your baby looks away.
  • Holding your baby close and cuddling them.
  • Using a warm, calm, ‘sing-song’ voice.
  • Smiling and nodding when your baby makes sounds.
  • Telling your baby you love them (if you feel able). Remember, it’s OK to tell your baby you love and adore them, even if it’s not true 100% of the time.

For more information, see Communicating with your baby when you’re experiencing mental illness.

The way in which we communicate with children about mental health difficulties change as they grow and develop.

Talking about mental illness with toddlers and preschoolers

Toddlers and preschool-age children have an increasing understanding of language, which they are beginning to depend on to make sense of the world around them. Having conversations about feelings and experiences from an early age can help normalise talking about mental illness and build the resilience your child needs to face future life challenges.

When talking about mental illness with toddlers and young children, it’s important to:

  • use simple language and words your child will understand – for example, ‘I am feeling extra sleepy at the moment and need to take naps in the afternoon which helps.
  • take a moment to manage your own feelings before comforting your child – for example, take a few deep breaths to settle yourself
  • use a calm voice and gentle facial expressions; and
  • link words to feelings – for example, when a parent is feeling irritated, it can be reassuring for a child to hear that, ‘I’m grumpy/angry right now… But it’s not you that’s making me angry – it’s just how I’m feeling… And I can see that this is making you sad’.

In the following video (30 sec), Child and Family Partner Jess talks about explaining mental illness to young children.

‘I shared with my children in age-appropriate language why Daddy was always in bed and how I was sad, but that I loved them so much and I was doing my best to get well.’

– Jaisen, father of four, Tasmania

Talking with primary school-aged children about mental health

Starting conversations about mental health and illness will help your primary-school-aged child understand what your experience means for them, for you and for the whole family. It also reassures children that it’s OK to talk about mental health and emotional difficulties, while also helping them get the correct information about changes that may be worrying them. Importantly, beginning these discussions with primary school-age children will help them to learn strategies to manage their own emotions.

Talking to your child about mental health difficulties can also help build an understanding that strengthens your parent-child relationship. To help aid this process, remember to:

  • use simple language that your child understands – for example, ‘I am finding it hard at the moment to manage getting everyone to their sports practice and so I have asked Grandma to help out until I am feeling better.’
  • provide opportunities for them to think and ask questions. This fact sheet on talking to children about parental mental illness can help you consider questions your child may ask and how you would answer them
  • encourage them to share the things they’re concerned about
  • remind them that there are no silly questions
  • reassure them that it’s not their fault and that supports are in place to help when needed
  • remind them of other family and friends they can talk to if they’re feeling worried or concerned and don’t feel like they can talk to you (remember the saying, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’)
  • make your child a part of regular conversations (when appropriate), as one discussion will not be enough; and
  • let your child know what you are doing to recover or manage your illness (e.g. seeing a doctor or taking medication).

The Satellite Foundation has a great resource which illustrates different examples for explaining mental illness to children. This may help your child to make meaning of your mental health difficulties in a way they understand.

By checking in regularly with your child and creating a safe space for talking about mental illness, you will build trust and connection. Remember, this will take time, and children’s need for information may change as they grow. If you’re finding things difficult, don’t forget your GP is a great place to get extra support. Building a relationship with a GP or mental health practitioner can take time, so it’s a good idea to start as soon as you can.

To learn more about the roles of different mental health practitioners, view our suite of explainer videos.

In the following video (31 sec), Child and Family Partner Neisha discusses being open with children about parental mental illness.

Talking to your teenager about mental illness

Parenting teenagers is an exciting yet sometimes daunting time. Helping them navigate the complex process of developing an adult world-view can be a rollercoaster ride for many parents.

As your child gets older, they may be better at reading and understanding other peoples’ emotions, but could still misread facial expressions or body language. By talking with them about your mental health, you’ll empower them to understand your illness is not their fault, and reassure them you’re seeking strategies to manage your mental health.

When talking to your teenager about your mental illness, it’s important to remember that young people access and receive information from a number of different sources, such as their friends, television and the internet (including social media). This information may not always match your experience. Listen to your child and take the time to explain how mental illness has been for you.

Making sure the conversation happens when you’re both feeling ready and calm is important. Try to be as appropriately honest as you feel comfortable and let your teen know they can ask questions at any time. They may be concerned about what your mental illness means for them in the future – does mental illness run in the family? If you feel unable to answer any questions they have, let them know that although you don’t have the answer right now, you will find out and come back to them.

For more information, check out Talking to your teenager about your mental illness.

‘…having conversations with them over the years was vitally important in shaping how they deal with their own mental health, and how they understand the mental health of other family members.’

– Jaisen, father of four, Tasmania

Helping your child understand mental illness and what it means for your family will:

  • help your child to know that it’s OK to talk about mental illness
  • allow your child to ask questions and get the correct information
  • help them to come to you (or others) when they’re worried or feeling overwhelmed; and
  • build an understanding that can strengthen their relationships.

If you’re looking for more suggestions on how to begin talking to your children about mental illness, you can also read our resource Starting the conversation about your mental illness with your child.

Talking about mental health and mental illness with children of any age can be challenging, as you worry about how your health and symptoms may impact them. But by having open and honest conversations as early as possible, you will help to raise children who are resilient and tolerant in the face of adversity, and who will respect and admire your strength as you work every day to live your best life.


  1. Reupert, A. E., Maybery, D. J., & Kowalenko, N. M. (2013). Children whose parents have a mental illness: prevalence, need and treatment. MJA Open, 1(Suppl 1), 7–9.
  2. Beyond Blue Ltd. (2017). Building resilience in children aged 0–12: a practice guide.

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