Talking to Younger Children About a Troubled Adult Child

There is nothing more heartbreaking than a disappointed child. When you have an adult child who is mentally ill, violent, or struggling with substance abuse, you may find yourself caring for your grandchildren or struggling to explain the problem to a younger child. Emotions can run high during these conversations. Some parents find themselves bouncing between a desire to rant about a troubled child and a desire to protect a young child from knowledge about their parent or sibling's troubled behavior. Consequently, it's important to never have these conversations when you're feeling angry, emotional, or otherwise vulnerable, and to carefully consider what you're going to say.

Make it Age-Appropriate

No matter what you plan to say, you need to tailor it to the child's developmental and verbal capabilities. Avoid using jargon and scientific terms with young children. Instead, kids under 10 simply want to know that they're safe and loved. With a two-year-old, you might only be able to explain something along the lines of, “Daddy is very sick right now, but I'm going to take good care of you until he gets better because I love you so much.” As the child grows, you can provide more information. An 11-year-old is capable of understanding the basics of mental illness, and an older teen deserves to get accurate information.


Talk About Illness

If your adult child struggles with mental illness or substance abuse, you've certainly encountered the stigma associated with these illnesses. You can help break the cycle of stigmatization by explaining them as illnesses – always ensuring you use age-appropriate language. A preschooler only needs to know that mommy is too sick to take care of her right now, but a teenager is old enough to understand the basics of mental illness. Try saying, “Your mom has a sickness that makes her act strange and sometimes do things she regrets. That illness is called bipolar disorder, and we're doing our best to help her get better.”


Explain What Will Happen

Children, particularly very young ones, are frequently much more concerned about what will happen to them than the exact nature of what's going on with a parent or sibling. Plan to address these concerns first. You might tell an eight-year-old, “I know your sister has been acting mean lately, but we're working on getting her help, and I will always make sure you're safe.”


As children get older, they tend to become increasingly interested in other people, and may wonder what's going to happen to their parent or sibling. Because you can't answer these questions with certainty, it's important to continue to provide reassurance. You might tell a teenager, “I don't know if your mom is going to stop using drugs, but we're doing everything we can to help. And I will be here for you no matter what.”


Answer Questions Honestly

It can be tempting to tell lies that make things seem better than they are. But promising that a parent will get better, that a sibling is hanging out with a fairy instead of spending time in a mental hospital, or lying about your adult child's bad behavior can backfire. If your child or grandchild finds out you've lied, she may lose trust in you, which can make her feel insecure in an already frightening situation. Instead, answer questions using words your child can understand in an age-appropriate way. Analogies can be helpful. You might tell a three-year-old that when her mom gets mean, it's a lot like when she has a tantrum. A teenager can understand that the compulsion to use drugs is similar to – but stronger than – the desire to avoid homework or work.