You’ve been dealing with your child’s mental health challenges for some time. You’ve kept it mostly private between you and your spouse but on the edge of your mind is “How do I talk to family about my child’s diagnosis?”
Maybe family members (siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents included) have seen your child’s behaviors and moods and are starting to ask you about them. Maybe they’re making misguided comments and you feel it’s time to clue them in. Or maybe you’re just looking for support from your family but it’s hard to find the words to begin that conversation.
It’s understandable to be hesitant. With all the stigma, stereotypes, and misunderstandings surrounding mental health, of course it’s going to be difficult when the conversation is about your child.
At the same time, sometimes it’s necessary to clue the family in about your child’s mental health journey. I applaud your bravery for having this conversation.
Here are 7 simple tips to ease your way into talking with friends and family about your child’s diagnosis.
1. Prepare ahead of time what you want to say
Do you want to share the actual diagnosis, or talk more in terms of general symptoms? Ex: Saying your child has been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder is different than saying “Taylor has been experiencing a down mood and has been tearful for some time.”
Do you want to share if your child is on medication? Or if she’s seeing a therapist or a psychiatrist?
There is no right or wrong thing to say. The ultimate question is: What is important for you to connect with the family about?
2. Be mindful about your child’s privacy
Your child, especially in the tween and teen years, deserves some privacy. Please careful about what you divulge.
Remember, the focus of the conversation should be on getting support for yourself as well as your child, so your family has an understanding of your struggles. Keep that in mind when you structure the conversation.
Your child, especially if she’s a teenager, is going to want privacy about many of the details of the situation. Disclose only what’s necessary. If you think your family will turn around and talk to her about it, keep that in mind when you share certain details.
3. Find the right time and place to have the conversation.
This is different for everybody. Make sure you’re not tired, hangry, or irritated going into the conversation.
4. Talk about what’s going well for your child
Keeping the conversation positive can be helpful for the family, and can even feel good for you. This is especially true if your child is ever in a family member’s care. If you know your child benefits from a calm, quiet place after school, say that. Sharing what works alongside what isn’t working can be a powerful method of communicating “My child may have problems but we are hopeful.”
5. Remind your family your child is more than a diagnosis
A diagnosis is affirming for some, daunting and stigmatizing for others. Ultimately, your child is more than a diagnosis. Share your child’s strengths and successes beyond the mental health challenges. Example: “Even though she’s been struggling with depression she’s been enjoying volunteering at the animal shelter.”
6.Be mindful that there might be negative reactions
Your family is going to have a reaction, point blank. Positive, negative, or neutral, they are going to respond and it may not be what you expect.
Your job is not to control how they react, but to let them have the space to do so.
If your family says something offensive, condescending, or just plain ignorant, take a deep breath and don’t react right away. They are likely not trying to be malicious. Their reaction is based off of their understanding of the world, only. It is not a reflection of your parenting, or your child’s well being.
You may experience this type of reaction with your child’s grandparents. They grew up in a different time, and have a different understanding of mental health and mental health treatment. It can help to have empathy and compassion toward their perspective. It can also help to keep expectations low for how much they can really understand the situation. Over time you can educate them more, but this is just the first conversation out of many.
7. Give your family some resources for more information
Website links, handouts, magazine articles, etc., can be helpful for the curious family member. It can also be helpful for the family member who is struggling to understand and needs a little extra time to digest what they’ve heard.
Some excellent resources are:
Bottom line: You are already brave for parenting a child with mental health challenges. Talking with the family is just the next step of the journey.
Jenmarie Eadie is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who is passionate about helping children to become less stressed by giving them and their parents tools, support and encouragement. She received her Master’s in Social Work from Arizona State with a dual concentration in Children, Youth, and Families; and Behavioral Health. Her proudest accomplishment is following her dream of opening up a practice that is designed to focus on the whole family. She currently serves families in Southern California.