What do you say to your child on a bad mental health day?
I've seen this question float around social media as a frequent inquiry on how to deal with the increasing curiosity of children when mental illness is involved. What do you say if your child asks why you're taking that medicine? When they ask where you're going as you rush off for counseling? When they want to know what's wrong when you're sleeping more than usual or when you're having a panic attack?
Honesty will always be the best policy, but sometimes children ask these questions before they're quite old enough to fully understand when you say, "well, I have bipolar disorder."
So what do you say?
I'd like to answer this question with a question: what would you say if they were asking about your insulin shot? Or if you were throwing up? Or if you were rushing to chemo therapy? Or if you were laying in bed after surgical recovery?
The real reason people struggle with how to explain mental illness with children is because mental illness is still stigmatized. It's not given the same respect as a physical illness. But it should be.
A doctors note from a psychologist should hold as much weight as one from your primary care provider.
Treatment for mental illness should be taken just as seriously as treatment for physical illness.
When someone is having a bad mental health day that needs to be respected as much as someone who is taking it easy after enduring physical stress.
So when your child asks what your medicine is for, tell them what it's for. Say, "I have bipolar disorder," just like you would say "I have diabetes."
Explain to them what that means. Say, "having anxiety means my mind tries to protect me even when I don't need it too, so I get scared sometimes of things that other people might not see as scary," just like you would say, "arthritis is when your joints, such as your wrist, start to hurt when they're used a lot and get weaker."
They may not be perfect answers, but at least they're honest. At least they show your children that mental illness isn't less than physical illness. And that it's ok to talk about. That it doesn't have to be hidden away.