Child Illness Parent Advice Mental Illness

Explaining mental illness to children is difficult, whether the child has ADHD, depression or another mental illness. Because people often have difficulty understanding mental illness, parents often find themselves actively advocating for their child, explaining mental illness to family members, friends and teachers.

Identifying Mental Illness

Even if parents don’t possess a full understanding of mental illness, they know their children better than anyone. Consequently, when parents suspect that something is mentally “wrong” with their child, they are often right.

Signs of ADHD, depression and other forms of mental illness vary. Some of the more common signs include:

  • abuse of drugs or alcohol
  • agitation
  • avoidance or social withdrawal
  • chronic nightmares
  • defiance of authority
  • difficulty organizing thoughts
  • excessive sleep or insomnia
  • feelings of worthlessness, guilt or shame
  • frequent temper tantrums or emotional outbursts
  • hearing or seeing things that are not there
  • hyperactivity
  • inability to cope with daily activities
  • loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • persistent sadness
  • self-injurious behavior
  • sudden change in grades
  • suicidal thoughts
  • unexplained changes in appetite or weight.

While any of these mental illness symptoms may be part of a child’s normal development, symptoms that persist, worsen or hinder development may indicate metal illness.

Explaining Mental Illness to Children

Explaining mental illness to children can be problematic: A child who has lived with depression or ADHD his whole life may be unaware he has a problem. To him, the effect of the mental illness is simply part of how the world works. Unless parents and doctors do a good job explaining mental illness, the child may resist medication and therapy.

Explaining mental illness by comparing it to a physical disease may make understanding mental illness easier for the child. Everyone gets sick, but only a few people get seriously ill. In the same way, everyone gets hyperactive or sad occasionally, but, in some cases, it happens so often it’s called ADHD or depression.

Children with mental illness often suffer from self-esteem problems, believing that there is something wrong with them because of their illness. Understanding mental illness helps children cope, especially if the parents keep teachers, coaches and other adults well-educated on the child’s treatment and progress.

Medication Compliance

Compliance is an issue for both adults and children living with mental illness. Depression symptoms, the distractibility of ADHD or the rigidity of obsessive compulsive disorder may all impair a child’s willingness to take medication.

One way to improve compliance is to have a regular schedule for medication, so sick children become accustomed to receiving their medication at set times of the day.

School-age children with mental illness may rebel at the idea of taking medication while at school. Children like to feel they are no different from their classmates. Consequently, regular trips to the nurse’s office make them feel different and self-conscious. If this is a major compliance issue, talk to your doctor or psychiatrist: A slight change in medication dosage or a time-release version of the medication may make school doses unnecessary.

Therapy and Mental Illness

Mental illness is often treated with a combination of medication and therapy. Depending on the nature of the therapy, parents may be just as involved as their sick children. Family therapy and parent education teach coping strategies that the entire family can use to handle the stress and challenges of living with mental illness.

Coping Strategies

Coping strategies for children with mental illness are often taught in therapy. For instance, while a child with ADHD may learn how to meditate and control his thought processes, a child living with depression may learn to use deep breathing exercises to calm anxiety.

Understanding mental illness can make coping easier for both parents and children. Mental illness does not mean that the child or parents have somehow done something wrong: Mental illness simply exists, much as vision impairments or deafness simply happen. No one is to blame for ADHD, depression or any other mental illness.

Parents can benefit from respite care, whether provided by family, friends or social workers. Respite allows parents to take a break from the daily stress of living with a mentally ill child.

Parents and children can also benefit from support groups, either in their communities or online. In support groups, children can share their experiences with other kids, as parents can learn new coping strategies from other parents.


American Academy of Child and Adult Psychiatry (2002). Talking to kids about mental illness. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from the AACAP Web site:

Medical College of Wisconsin (2001). Children, mental illness, and medicines. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from the MCW Web site:

Schimelpfening, N. (n.d.). The myth of a happy childhood. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from the Web site: