The Father of My Kids Has Mental Health Issues. How Do I Explain It to Them?

The father of my children has been diagnosed as being bipolar, having PTSD, and also schizophrenia. We have not been together for seven years, but his ongoing condition seems to be worsening in the past two years. He has had more bouts of schizophrenia, has had issues with law enforcement, and has been in and out of outpatient and inpatient care. My children are ages 8 and 9, boy and girl, respectively. Their father has a girlfriend who is well-educated on this matter and she keeps me informed. He has visitation rights with the kids every other weekend, but has not seen them since late October because of his instability and mental health facility visits, as well as jail visits when he gets disruptive, so to speak. My question and concern lie with my children, of course. How can I raise them without them having mental health issues themselves? They have been told their father is sick and does not think clearly in his head like most people do. He gets confused and says and does things that often break the law. Of course they miss him and don't quite understand. I want them to not be afraid but to grow and learn about mental health regarding their father and to understand. At the same time, I am sometimes concerned for their safety and want them to be aware of their own safety and to not necessarily trust their father. What should I tell them? How else can I explain to an 8- and 9-year-old that their father is sick? How can I raise them to be successful in life, love their dad, but be wary of him at the same time? —Worried Wanda
Dear Worried Wanda,

Boy, what a stressful situation this must be for everyone. I think your concerns about your children and desires to keep them safe are perfectly normal—and warranted, given the erratic and “disruptive” behavior of your (ex?) husband, which apparently includes visits to jail and mental hospitals. I think the first thing, if you haven’t thought of this already, is to make sure any potential visits (even if Dad is “on his meds” and reportedly doing OK) are strictly supervised. Perhaps the most appropriate thing, if/when he is again permitted to have visits with the children, is to ensure visits are made in very controlled, safe situations. Again, this may have occurred to you already, but there it is.

The main point of your question is how to speak to kids about things that even we adults struggle to comprehend, and that may even frighten us. We Westerners, with our love of hard science, tend to be more at ease with what we can see and touch; mental issues often seem intangible, hard to define and treat with the same precision as physical illnesses. This can create anxiety and frustration, including the question of how to talk to children. Rest assured, there is no “right” way to do this. The only way is trial and error, in the seeking out of that elusive combination of honesty and appropriateness, much of which, of course, depends on your children. Some kids are astonishingly open-minded and earthy about things; others have more anxiety and need to be treated much more delicately. Some 8-year-olds may say matter-of-factly, “So my friends say Dad’s crazy, is that true?” Others may very tentatively say, with much worry, “What’s wrong with Daddy?” The first step is to acknowledge their feelings about what’s happening, validate their experiences (“yes, this stuff is a little scary”), and most importantly to reassure them that his behavior has nothing to do with them. I’m sure their father is a good person in a bad predicament.

Know that it’s OK for you to share some of your own feelings about this, including anxiety, worry, frustration, what have you. It’s likely worth talking about with a friend first, to sort out what you do and don’t want to say to your kids. (For instance, if you’re angry at him, it would be more appropriate to vent to a confidant than the children, though you might say that sometimes you get angry at the behavior, that his illness makes him do things that are hard to understand.) The point is, you are going to be the prime role model in how to handle this. If you are calm and balanced (as best as you can manage), they’ll feel that; if you seem overly anxious, angry, or indifferent, they’ll likely pick up on that, too. I don’t get that impression from your letter, by the way. You seem quite involved and caring.

It’s OK to say “I don’t know” if you don’t know the answer to something. Perhaps you can pursue answers as a family. For instance, there are helpful children’s books on mental issues, available via Google or Amazon. Seeking knowledge and education makes things less scary, and the good news is that, as awful as these issues are, better medications and treatments are coming along, seemingly every other day. (Is it possible, incidentally, that the schizophrenic episodes are connected to the mania? I’m not sure what “bouts of schizophrenia” means, unless you mean bouts of psychosis—visual or aural hallucinations, extreme paranoia, etc.—which can be related to the mania. Fortunately, the medications available are much better than they were, say, even 10 or 20 years ago. Is he regular with his medication? Many with bipolar are not, which only worsens the other symptoms, such as posttraumatic stress, psychosis, etc.)

I also wonder how much of their father’s issues are personality driven. With all due respect, I have worked with people with psychotic and extreme mood issues, and not all of them end up in jail. I don’t want to make any presumptions, but it sounds like he may have some other issues going on that might also explain his illegal and disruptive behaviors. (Does he have a drug problem?)

It’s scary to consider this, and not easy to say, but as parents (and I am one) we want to keep our kids safe, protected, and healthy, but there are limitations to those protections, since we are all too human. One of the very positive things my parents did for me was to take the stigma and fear out of seeking out counseling or therapy. I can’t help thinking that a family therapy session or two might help you—not only to destigmatize the mental health profession (which their dad so obviously needs), but also to allow your children to talk to a professional about their father’s issues. Education and de-escalating fears, again, creates greater emotional safety. These issues are difficult, but they need not be terrifying. Having a professional involved, even briefly, takes some pressure off of you, while it allows you to role-model for them an example of seeking help rather than the pressure of having to know all the answers (who does?).

A long, drawn-out course of therapy may not be needed; however, these kids have been exposed to some pretty disorienting fatherly behavior, and it might be a relief to them to talk freely to someone about their feelings, questions, and perceptions, someone not directly involved. Very often kids are protective of their parents’ feelings, or wary to contradict what they sense one parent is feeling about the other. Speaking openly and freely about their emotional experience could help reduce any potential anxiety.

I hope this is helpful. Your children are lucky to have such a caring, protective mom. Thanks for writing.


Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
  • Leave a Comment
  • Lizzie

    April 12th, 2013 at 2:19 PM

    I think that you just need to be honest with them. Let them know the information that they absolutely need to know and as they get older you can begin to fill in the blanks for them as they ask questions and are ready to know more. I think that you are probably pretty intune with what the kids can handle so be aware of that as you try to explain the situation to them. I don’t necessarily think that it is in their best interest to hide things from them, because I think that it would be better for them to hear all of this from you in a kind and loc=ving way than from someone who could completely skew it and make things eve more difficult for them. It is never easy to learn that the parents aren’t perfect but I think that if you do it in a way that they are ready for they will come to appreciate the way you taked to them and kept them informed about their father.

  • Michael Spenceley

    April 12th, 2013 at 2:36 PM

    In regards to the behavior being personality driven, alot of the personality would of been formed as a result of having and dealing with the condition. To change the personality, he needs to look at his condition from a different angle and accept some of the things that he has trouble with. It’s through acceptance that things start to change for the better.

  • simon

    April 13th, 2013 at 12:01 AM

    I’d suggest you to first listen to what the kids have to say-the assumptions they have made and the thoughts they have developed about this entire can then dispel their fears and tell them about what’s really going confident and be open to listening.all the best!

  • joan k

    April 13th, 2013 at 4:08 AM

    I would suspect that what I would want to do and what I should do would be two different things entirely.
    Who wants to set their children up with years of worries and concerns when you don’t have to? But at the same time, every child deserves in some way to know the truth about his family. So I guess it is going to have to be this good balance, telling them about their father’s struggles as they become aware of his absence and start asking questions, but then at the same time showing them the stability that they need by being that rock for them. Tell them that what happened with their dad does not mean that it has to happen to them, as many kids wil eventually start to worry about that.

  • Carter

    April 13th, 2013 at 1:07 PM

    gonna get in big trouble with this one, but I sure hope that this is something that I know ahead of time about the person that I choose to procreate with

  • Alex

    April 15th, 2013 at 3:51 AM

    Think about it this way-
    you have a great chance to raise some really fabulous kids and give them a real life education about what mental illness is really all about and how it does not only affect the person who lives with it, but really the whole family network. I know that this must feel like a whole lot for a child to take in, but I think that as a parent you can really use this as a wonderful teaching tool for them. You can explain to them about the origins of disease and how this is probably something that they need to remain aware of for their whole lives. But I don’t think that the message always has to be nagative, just matter of fact and who knows? Maybe these conversations will be the start of opening more dialogue for more people regarding the effects of mental illness on society.

  • Abner

    April 15th, 2013 at 12:49 PM

    There is no real need to push the facts down the throat of your children. The visitations have almost stopped as it stands now so not much to worry in that aspect. They will know of it all once they grow up, let them just be. They may or may not take things the right way. And if they don’t it could leave a mental scar in them, which is certainly something you wouldn’t want!

  • Sally High

    April 18th, 2013 at 3:34 AM

    I agree with many of the comments posted. It should be addressed when your children are at the age to understand what mental illness really means. However by seeking therapy when the children are young, it can help provide age appropriate ways to help them cope with his behavior. Kids are smart and they are always watching. Don’t avoid it but don’t tell them to much so they start to become “parentified”. Find the right wording and methods to help them understand.

  • Katherine

    April 23rd, 2013 at 4:34 PM

    I have a grandson(4) whose father is currently in prison. Dad has the probability to be released in Oct 2013. Dad has what I call the the yo-yo syndrome (i.e.,”I want to see him, I don’t want to see him”;”Have someone else adopt him, I still want him in my life”). Just FYI, father has diagnosis of mental health illness as well as a history of traumatic life events.

    I stand by grandson’s mother who believes visits with dad are not currently in his best interest. Grandson’s mom wants to have her new husband adopt her son while dad is in prison. While in my care my grandson asks, “Where my daddy go?” The best response I’ve come up with is “Daddy’s gone away for awhile.” He then goes on to ask where the mom’s new husband(by name) is? I believe this shows his ability to recognize the difference between the two.

    While I can appreciate and agree with mom’s firm stand regarding visitation at this time, I am apprehensive regarding the adoption. What are your suggestions.

    Concerned Grandma

  • Sophia N.

    January 16th, 2015 at 7:49 PM

    This podcast really helped me cope. The title is Dad’s In Jail:

  • qwett

    August 11th, 2015 at 3:06 PM

    Wow I could of writ this myself my ex parter has bipolar paranoid skitz and personality disorder sadly the father of my children is in and out of hospital and is in and out of jail and he’s not allowed near my chikdren as he’s a risk to the contact centre becoz he’s too paranoid to do a risk check for the contact centre it’s been 2 years since he’s seen our children and it’s hard for me to explain the reason why they can’t see their daddy I carry the burden on my shoulders every time I over hear one of my children pretending that daddy has gone to make lots of money and he’s doing this or that playing, I have said they can see their daddy when their bigger when they understand daddy needs lots of help but I can’t help feel the guilty about how their feeling inside :(

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