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Talking to children when parents are suicidal, self-harming or very unwell

A child of a parent with suicidal thoughts, who has self-harmed or is very unwell can feel scared and worried for their parent. They can feel responsible for their parent and fearful that Child Safety involvement may increase their parent’s distress.

These feelings might limit their own willingness to ask for help or seek support.

When there is an opportunity, take time to talk to the child during crises. Let them know what is happening, that their parent is being looked after and that they themselves will be taken care of. Ask them about their worries and provide them with accurate information. Remember that kids will often see things very differently than adults.

To learn more about talking to children about their parent’s mental health issue, refer to Talking with Children within this kit.

When a parent is hospitalised

It can be frightening for a child if emergency workers are called to their house because their parent is very unwell. If practitioners are present when this occurs, give the child a simple explanation of what is happening and provide reassurance that their parent is getting the help they need. Reassure the child they will see their parent soon.

Children need to know that the ambulance officers are not wanting to hurt their parent. For example, ‘Your mum or dad is unwell and the ambulance is here to help them get to a doctor or hospital, so that they can get well as soon as possible.’

Once the ambulance has left, spend time with the child, other family members or support people. Listen to the child’s concerns. Let them know what is going to happen to their parent and also what is happening to them if you have to make arrangements for their care (COPMI, 2016).

Tip

Children of Parents with a Mental Illness (COPMI) have developed care plan templates to help plan for the care of children and young people when their parent is unwell. Incorporate this template into your work with the child, family, and safety and support network, so everyone knows the plan if the parent becomes unwell.

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