Explaining Mental Illness to Your Child and Others

August 3, 2014 Christina Halli

"But he doesn't look sick," my daughter said. She was right. On the outside, Bob looked like any other middle school child. What his sister and the rest of the world didn't know was that Bob had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. His psychiatrist suggested we keep Bob home from school and wrote a note stating Bob was a threat to himself and others. Now I had to explain this to Bob, his sister and the rest of the world.

Mental Illness in Children is a Physical Illness

It was easy to explain bipolar disorder to Bob at age twelve. I read the symptoms aloud from a book. Bob nodded his head as if he had read it before. I defined hypersexuality and he said, "Mom that explains a lot." I chose not to elaborate on other conditions with similar symptoms (including teenage boy syndrome). I shared information I gathered on treatment. I told Bob we'd find the right medication so he could manage his illness when he left for college.Explaining mental illness to your child and others is hard. Read how this parent of a child with mental illness explains the mental illness of her son.

Bob's therapist wins the prize for explaining anxiety to him. She drew a large brain with little pictures of perceived threats and irrational fears on a whiteboard while talking to Bob's dad and me. Bob sat behind her looking down at his iPod with his earbuds in his ears and his long hair over his eyes.

After the appointment he said, "Mom, uh, you know how I was pretending not to listen?"

"Yes," I replied.

Bob continued, "Well, uh, I actually was listening and what she described is how I feel."


Defining a Child's Mental Illness to the Whole Family

Little sister was also open to learning about mental illness. I told her Bob had a brain disorder and compared his moods to hot and cold on the stove. I said that sometimes he doesn't have a medium setting. We read age appropriate books about Bob's disorder. She still meets with a counselor. She continues to think Bob gets too much attention.

Educating the rest of my family on mental illness was not as simple. My husband attended a National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) class with me. This opened his eyes to the basics of mental illness and how it affects the whole family. But the burden of care and advocacy still rests mostly on my shoulders.

I do not remember how I told extended family. I do recall receiving mixed results. My elderly mother left a nasty voicemail denying the illness and trashing the doctors. My father and siblings were supportive but confused since Bob didn't look sick.

Stigma and Mental Illness

Some friends shined, others lost their luster. My best friends remained loyal. Some admitted ignorance, resulting in my endless chatter on the subject. One mom offered to have the girls' play dates at her house but not mine.

Another lady asked if my son's illness was fatal. I said no, ignoring the tragic suicide statistics. I still wrestle with this question.

Disclosing Mental Illness Leads to Support

The biggest surprise is how many new friends I've made with parents like myself. I even started a local support group for moms of children with mental illness. They provide an amazing bond of support. I've found sharing our story gives me strength.

The explanations continue as the journey continues. I admit I'm extremely open about Bob's mental illness. Sometimes people are so shocked, they tell me it can't be so. After all, Bob is seventeen now and still doesn't look sick.

You can find Christina on Google+, Twitter and Facebook.

APA Reference
Halli, C. (2014, August 3). Explaining Mental Illness to Your Child and Others, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Author: Christina Halli

August, 5 2014 at 6:29 am

My daughter whos ten suffers from bipolar. She was taught about it by her therapists yet they blamed me for it and said she shouldve never been educated at all about her illness. To me education is half the battle. Yet a judge didnt think so and gave custody to her father and I got supervised visitations because she knew too much.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Christina Halli
August, 5 2014 at 7:25 am

Thank you for commenting. I'm sorry to hear about the difficult situation with your daughter. I agree with you, education is so important. I hope you will continue to educate yourself about your daughter's illness. Learning about bipolar disorder has helped me understand what my son is going through.

August, 5 2014 at 9:07 am

I'm so sorry you lost custody. My parents didn't believe in or understand mental illness. I self-diagnosed at 13 because I knew something wasn't right. I didn't start getting help until 11th grade and it was very limited. Thank God you were there for your daughter. Keep your head up and just keep loving her.

August, 5 2014 at 11:40 am

I am also like Bob I had many struggles with mental illness. I had a loads of them thrown my way. I was diagnosed finally with proper tests at age 25 with borderline personality disorder. I still don't understand to this day why it took them so long to diagnose. I as well have family that is supportive and some that are ignorant to it. Shortly after my mom was also diagnosed with it. I am glad there are parents like you that are there to help and be supportive.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Christina Halli
August, 6 2014 at 6:40 am

Thanks for your kind words. I'm glad you finally were able to get a diagnosis and have family support. Support is critically important for recovery.

Jill Porco
August, 7 2014 at 8:33 am

I wish my parents had handled my depression diagnosis better when I was 14 and first diagnosed. After my suicide attempt at age 16, they just expected me to go to back to school within a few days and pick up my life as if nothing had happened. The hospital even released me the night of the attempt despite the fact I couldn't even walk (a temporary side effect of the overdose). This was back in the late 70s-early 80s when stigma against people with mental illness was more prevalent than it is today. I know my parents did the best they could at the time, given the information they received so I don't really blame them much as much as I wish they'd been given better information at the time.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Christina Halli
August, 7 2014 at 4:01 pm

Hi Jill,
Thank you for sharing your story. I believe it is very helpful to be honest and open about our stories. The more we share, the more we can relate to each other. I'm sorry to hear things were so difficult for you at such a young age. I agree things have changed thanks to the sharing of stories and information.

August, 7 2014 at 11:15 am

Thanks for posting this. As an adult with Bipolar I worry that when I have children they will inherit my legacy of mental illness and I worry how I would cope with explaining to them about their illness while still letting them know that there is hope for a normal life with education and treatment. You've given me hope, thank you.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Christina Halli
August, 7 2014 at 4:03 pm

Thank you for our comment. You are right...with education and treatment, there is hope for a normal life. That is exactly my hope for my son.

Dawn Bizzell
August, 7 2014 at 1:28 pm

My daughter is 14 & diagnosed with bipolar. Our 1st symptom was her near fatal suicide attempt on the night before she was to start 7th grade, age 12. We first saw the mania after her weeks in the hospital. I completely identified with your experiences, especially dealing with friends (now the lack of) and extended family. We also attended the NAMI classes & support groups. I do some speaking & advocacy work with NAMI speaking to high school students. I am open, too, as my daughter is also. I find its healthy for us to tell our story & I hope it will help dispel the myths & stigma.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Christina Halli
August, 7 2014 at 4:05 pm

I am so sorry to hear what your daughter and your family has been through. It is very similar to our experience. I'm glad you are open and reaching out to others. I agree that by doing so we will dispel myths and stigma.

August, 17 2014 at 11:18 am

I was diagnosed with bipolar and ADHD at age 5 and it was consistent spring and summer manias until I hit 12 or 13 and then the hormones made it horrible but my understanding of it was that I was a hyper brat with a big mouth. Sadly my mom (and now my brother even though he was never diagnosed) was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and she thought it was sexism and "life experience depression" and was in denial about her issues so I tended to be perceived as manic whenever I was a brat. I'd get the beating and when that and the screaming failed, she'd call 911 and I'd get lugged off to get the haldol/ativan shot in the ER.
Sometimes I was legitimately in need but sometimes not. Her mother had the same mental illness that started pretty acutely at a very young age. My father was also hyper like me so I was admittedly a handful and a troublemaker although my grades were always above average and I was always up to par as far as grades are concerned. I was able to improve but discipline in normal states and medication in the manic states were something I wish that were separate for me.
I am sure that parents aren't perfect or infallible and I have dated a couple people with different variants of bipolar disorder and it was draining but I think in my case my mom's issues may have been part of the problem. She seemed to used to love conflict and always thought I hated her when I sometimes just had a headache or something. I don't have that issue so I don't know where she comes from but I pity her now because she is gone even though she was ill to her grave but I learned not to take it personal.
Her final email to us was a tangent to my brother and I about how she regretted giving birth to the most narcissistic sociopaths on the planet but I learned early on not to take her too personal. My brother is off the wall now but I have no contact with him because I can't handle it.
Great article,

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Christina Halli
August, 17 2014 at 3:05 pm

Thank you for sharing your personal story. It must be very difficult as a child to grow up with a mental illness and no support. Unfortunately, your experience is far to common. Your mother's final email sounds especially hurtful. It takes a lot of courage and self awareness to understand that her issues were hers. I'm also impressed with your ability to set boundaries for yourself regarding your brother. Again, thank you for shedding light on the reality of living with mental illness in the family.

G Theresa
May, 19 2015 at 8:50 am

Like the lady above, I had depression early 80's when there wasn't even confidentiality. University counsellor said it could be disclosed once I graduated from medicine. Walked out and never went back. Suffering alone.

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