Mommy’s Sick: How to Talk to Your Children About Residential Treatment

When you have children, going to residential treatment can require intense logistical planning. Your partner may have to rearrange their work schedule, relatives may have to fly in from thousands of miles away to provide childcare, or you may be scrambling to find a nanny at the last minute. But the practical challenges of juggling treatment with parenthood are often nothing compared to the most pressing issue:

“How do I tell my kids?”

Some parents have already established an ongoing dialogue with their children about mental health issues and seeking residential care is a new development in an ongoing journey. Others have tried to shield their children from the struggles that residential treatment forces into the spotlight and must now find a way of introducing the topic. How exactly the course of your conversation will go depends on the age of your children and their personalities. You know them best and can use language they understand to help them make sense of what is happening and provide reassurance in a difficult time.

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Be Honest

Some parents are reluctant to tell the truth about going to treatment for fear that it will cause worry and pain. But kids are smart. They know when you are hiding something from them and in the absence of real information, their imaginations are free to wander into hostile territory. Not telling your children the truth about your treatment leaves them with infinite possibilities for dreaming up worst-case scenarios, clinging to incorrect information, and finding ways to blame themselves. As usual, honesty is the best policy.

Be Open About Your Experience

Set aside a dedicated time to talk about residential treatment and what will happen there. You can look at the facility website together, go over a sample schedule, and talk about the kinds of therapies you will be receiving. You can discuss how you will communicate with them while in treatment and what the visiting policy is. Demystifying the treatment experience can help your children understand it in a positive and non-threatening way. Talk to them about what your treatment goals are in terms that they can understand and tell them that you are working hard to get better.

Be Open About Their Experience

In most cases, your stay at a residential facility will have practical implications for your children. Tell them what the plan is for them while you are away and how it will affect their day-to-day lives, including any scheduling changes or new caregiver arrangements. Ask if they have any needs you may have overlooked in your own planning to ensure that they have what they need during your time away. These needs may simple logistics, like needing a ride to soccer practice, or they may be emotional ways of dealing with your treatment experience, like wanting to text you once a day.

Take Questions

Chances are that your children will have a lot of questions about your illness, your treatment, and how it will affect them. Make yourself available on an ongoing basis to address their concerns, give them the knowledge that will assuage their anxieties, and provide reassurance. For some children, face-to-face conversations can be too overwhelming and uncomfortable; in these cases, giving your child a journal in which they can write down their questions as they arise can give them the opportunity to express concerns that are difficult to say out loud.

Find Opportunities for Learning

Although they vary in form and function, everyone faces hardships in life and teaching your child how to navigate them in healthy ways is one of the most critical parts of parenting. As psychologist Ryan Howes says:

It’s important for parents with mental illness to know they have a special opportunity to teach their kids one of life’s most important lessons: Everyone has their baggage. For mentally ill parents, their baggage just happens to have a diagnosis and a treatment plan. It’s not so important what the baggage is, but how it’s handled.

By modelling how you tackle a difficult problem, you can show your kids how to face obstacles in smart, effective ways. You may also want to use this as an opportunity to talk about how to care for your health, explore self-care practices, and emphasize the value in asking for help when you need it. There is tremendous wisdom to be gained by a child watching how their parent approaches adversity and your path to healing can open up conversations that offer a wealth of knowledge.

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Strengthen Their Support Network

Creating an environment in which your child can safely express their worries, fears, and hopes is vital to supporting their well-being. When you are struggling with a mental health disorder or in treatment, make sure they have other trustworthy adults they can go to to process their emotions. Just as your love for your children creates an overwhelming desire to protect them, children often seek to protect their parents by not wanting to burden them when they are in pain and they may be reluctant to talk to you about their anxiety, anger, and fear. Tell them about the importance of talking about their feelings and discuss who they can go to for support, both while you are in treatment and in general, whether it includes family members, friends, or a therapist.

Be Positive

The pervasive social stigma about mental illness can make it hard for even the most intelligent, logical, and informed among us to resist internalizing negative messages. Sometimes, getting to the point where you need residential treatment can feel like a kind of failure. The reality, of course, is that mental health disorders are common medical conditions and not a personal shortcoming. Seeking treatment is not admitting defeat, it is an act of hope, courage, and commitment to yourself and your family. This is the message your children need to hear: treatment is a loving act undertaken in the hope for a better future. You are going there to heal, learn, and grow so that you can return healthier and more present for both yourself and your children.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people living with mental health disorders. Contact us for more information about our innovative program and how it can help you or your loved one find relief from suffering.