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How do I tell my 10-year-old about my mental health issues?

Answered by Heather Bernstein, PsyD

Q How do I tell my 10-year-old daughter about my own mental health issues? I have BPD and hear voices and am unsure how to explain why sometimes I am different.

I think one of the most important things for you to know is that this isn’t a one-time conversation, so you don’t have to say it all at once. You are opening a dialogue that will probably continue for the rest of your child’s life, so less is more. Take it slow and communicate that you aren’t afraid to talk about mental health.

In terms of what to say, being developmentally sensitive is important. A ten-year-old might not be able to understand what hearing voices means, for instance. You might start by focusing on how your mental health impacts your daily life. This is a good strategy because that’s what your child is probably going to care the most about. So you might say something like “I struggle with my mental health and what that means for me is I sometimes feel really big emotions and I have to manage those.” Or maybe it’s “I have a hard time with my relationships.” While you are talking, really pay attention to how your daughter is responding. You can use that as a measure for how much to share.

You can also talk about what you are doing in terms of treatment. Kids want to know that you are healthy and getting the services you need, because it makes them less fearful. So you might describe what you do — for example, “I work with doctors. One of the doctors I talk to about my emotions, one of the doctors talks to me about my medicine. I go every single week to make sure I’m taking care of myself.” Be clear that you are giving this information so they know you are being cared for, and it’s not their responsibility to take care of you. 

If your child has questions that you feel confident in being able to answer, then answer those truthfully and in a developmentally appropriate way. If there are questions that you aren’t sure how to respond to, feel free to take a pause. That might be a good time to talk with your therapist to discuss the best way to discuss with your child. Because your therapist knows about your child and your relationship, they might also be able to provide good guidance about how to have this conversation, now or during future conversations.