Based on the work of Daphne Lussier, social worker
In Quebec, around one in five children have a parent who suffers from a mental disorder. Anxiety disorders, mood disorders, depression and schizophrenia are among the most common.
A mental disorder appears through symptoms and distress that significantly affect how a person functions in various areas of their life. – Institut national de la santé publique du Québec
If you are a parent and are a part of this statistic, what can you do to protect the mental health of your teen, who might witness this reality someday?
Open up the discussion: What is mental illness?
It might be tempting to hide the situation in order to shield the young person from it, but just like adults, they need to understand the cause and repercussions of the illness so that they can better adapt to it. If they cannot put their parent’s illness into words, a teen can feel helpless and confused.
According to Daphné Lussier, author of a master’s thesis entitled “Vivre avec un parent atteint d’un trouble de santé mentale majeur” (“Living with a Parent Who Suffers from a Major Mental Illness”), children become aware that their parent is “different” at around the age of eight or nine, especially when they witness their symptoms during a crisis.
It is advisable to use simple terms to explain what the illness is, along with its symptoms and repercussions. Why not make a list of the main symptoms of the illness, which can be used as a checklist if something is wrong?
This better understanding also makes it possible to differentiate between what belongs to the mental illness and what belongs to the parent’s personality, explains Daphné Lussier.
It is also important to determine the teen’s view of the situation. You could start the discussion with questions like:
- How do you feel about my situation?
- Does my illness scare you?
- Would you like me to shed light on anything?
Name and validate emotions
A teen who experiences the ups and downs of their parent’s illness might experience many emotions, such as:
It is important to tell them that their parent’s mental disorder is not their fault and that they are not responsible for their recovery.
Teens who have a good understanding of the mental disorder tend not to blame themselves for the way their parent might behave. – Daphné Lussier
One of the main dangers for a young person who witnesses their parent’s difficulties is to become their parent’s parent, which is called parentification. This phenomenon can intensify in early adolescence, when the young person becomes aware of their parent’s vulnerability.
They will be inclined to take on the role of caregiver (household tasks, emotional support) instead of the role of a child. Impacts can be felt in their academic progress and relationships with their peers.
If possible, it is advisable to surround the teen with meaningful adults (grandparents, uncles, aunts, family friends, etc.) who can offer their support if needed. The young person will be able to speak to them freely, without the fear of hurting their parent, when going through a rough time.
Finding activities or passions (inside or outside the home) can build a teen’s self-esteem. By having fun and nurturing a positive self-image, the risks of isolation decrease.Our advice
Just as a parent who suffers from a mental disorder may receive professional psychological support, it may be a good idea to provide the teen with the same type of support if they feel that they need an additional resource. They will be guided in their questions and emotions on neutral ground.
Relevant resources to review with your teen:
• THE GUIDE (available in French only): « Quand ton parent a un trouble de santé mentale »
• THE BOOK (available in French only) « Parler de votre santé mentale avec vos enfants » by Céline Lamy
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