Q: My eight-year-old daughter is very close to my father, who has a mental illness. She has been shielded from it; when he is not well, we tell her he has the flu. Should I tell her about his illness and, if so, how?
A: It’s important to tell your daughter about her grandfather’s illness because, at eight years old, she’s starting to question things more and it’s better to be honest with her. Explaining mental illness to children can be difficult and it needs to be done in an age-appropriate way. You will want to be careful not to overwhelm or confuse her with too much information. You can simply say that Grandpa doesn’t feel well; he has an illness that affects the brain, which controls our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Explain that when he’s sick, he might say or do things he normally wouldn’t. Reassure your daughter that Grandpa’s illness is not the kind that is contagious so she doesn’t have to worry that she or others will get it from him. Also, let your daughter know that his doctor and other adults in his life are working to help him. Reinforce that her grandfather continues to love her even though there may be times she can’t see him when he is ill.
Be alert for signs that your daughter feels that her grandfather’s illness is her fault or that she’s responsible for making it go away, and correct this immediately. Remain open to any questions your daughter might have, and talk with her about her feelings of missing her grandfather when he is unwell, and about any sadness or anger that she might feel.