Wednesday, February 23, 2011

How Do You Tell Your Child?

I’m a huge fan of the tv show Parenthood. Next weeks episode is about how parents of an autistic child tell their son that he has Aspergers. It got me thinking about my online community and if you’ve crossed this bridge yourself. If you’re one of the few with an actual diagnosis, have you told your child what they have? If so, how did you do it? Would you do it again or would you do it differently if you had a second chance?

In our son’s situation, we haven’t had “the talk” with labels and all. Instead it’s been an ongoing conversation, addressing symptoms as they appear. In the beginning our son would ask what was wrong with him, unfortunately we had no idea. When I look back, I think he was the one with the answers. At the age of 7, he would explain that he had two brains and that the bad side would take over the good side and make him do bad stuff.

At the age of 10, I’ve overheard him explain that he has an anger management problem. He tends to blame his mood challenges on his “anger”.

As he got older and we became wiser, we would help define his experience. For example, when he started to have episodes where he would cry for unknown reasons, we would explain that it was his “brain making mistakes”. When things became more intense, we started to give descriptions for his reactions, such as, “don’t be scared, what you’re feeling is anxiety, this will go away very soon”, or when he couldn’t sleep and was very impulsive, we explained that his brain was making him feel “too much energy” and then suggest that we go for a walk.

Once, my son asked me if he had bipolar disorder, because he’s seen books such as The Bipolar Child laying around the house. Since we don’t have an official diagnosis, we told him that the doctors didn’t know, but they believe he has a mood disorder, explaining that his brain makes mistakes about his feelings to different situations, making him feel angry or sad when he shouldn’t. We explained that this is something he was born with and it wasn’t his fault and that he should never feel ashamed about it. We also explained that his brain was still growing and changing and it was possible that his brain could outgrow this and if it didn’t, he would always have doctors and medication to help him.

I’ve also pointed out that his creativity may be connected with his mood disorder. I’ve explained that the unique way his brain is wired may also be the reason for his special ability to build and make cool stuff. I remind him that as much as he has challenges that others don’t, he has creativity like no other.

I don’t know if we’re handling this the right way or not, but I believe there are many ways to have this talk with your child. For us, it’s an ongoing conversation that is open and honest, while trying to remain age appropriate. I would love for you to share your experience and wisdom in this area, so please tell us, how did you tell your child?


  1. Well, I am glad your son can let you know when something is wrong. Our son hasn't learned how to do that yet. I sure hope he does. He is one miserable kid. He is on a 72-hour hold again this week because of his severe violence.

    He knows he has a problem but no matter how we explain it he doesn't "get" it. Then he does negative self-talk and threatens suicide, etc!

    We maintain residential stay type of behavior at home all the time with him. His providers don't know how we do it, but we know how! He's our son and we love him.

    Just thought this might interest you. I'm sure glad my daughter wasn't around then, though sometimes you wonder with some peoples (including DR's) ideas and approaches to mental health.

  3. Shari- I'm so sorry to hear about your son, we've never been through hospitalization, I can't imagine how hard that is. Sending you hugs...

    As much as our son gets it, when he becomes unstable all knowledge goes out the door. That's the part that we struggle with right now, even though he knows what helps him when he gets upset, he becomes very resistant in doing what works.

  4. I absolutely love the show Parenthood. Yes, I've somewhat share w/ my daughter her issues. We once read a book together on ADHD, and she knows from all of her doctor visits and discussions with us, that something is different about her. We, too, came close to admitting her to a facility because of the dangers towards her 3 sibblings, us and the dog. She knows that this might happen - mainly because if it does, it won't be a surprise. We are very open - in a positive and frustrating way - for we truly believe our honesty is a positive approach towards her journey.
    She doesn't know about the labeled ODD and Mood Disorder because like many of you, labels can be more harmful than helpful, but we do give titles to her behaviors.
    At calm times, I try and talk w/ her about different ways to handle her outbursts, and most times she becomes very defensive, so I diffuse the conversation. I haven't stopped trying; I just take her reactions as a sign that she's not mature or ready for this.
    Love your blog, Mama Bear, and appreciate all of your followers who are helping all of us.

  5. Thanks Leigh and thank you for sharing your approach. I think you hit the nail on the head about diffusing the conversation, my son is also quick to be defensive and very resistant, so diffusing the situation by distraction or separation is often what works best for us. The key is to do it before their switch is flipped. It’s a very fine line.

  6. I think we told our son for certain at 12 years old after his second hospitalization for mania. But our journey began when he was hospitalized at 6 for suicide threats and psychosis so we've had a long time to warm up to this. At 12 we finally just told him for sure - you are bipolar - you have to take your meds. And then we had the psychiatrist talk to him alone (1 hour appointments paid for out of pocket) about this a lot too so he understands the chemistry of it. Our son knew he was bipolar he just didn't know the label. But he is relieved by the diagnosis and the help he gets. And he readily tells people now that he is bipolar.

    MB, your son will get there. He is still young yet. Just tell him when it feels right. I know our psychiatrist goes completely on informed consent as far as meds (in other words, our son does not take any med he does not consent to or does not want to take) so it is very important that he understand why he takes what he takes.

    For your son it will be really important that he understand what he has as he moves into the teen years. Self medication becomes a possibility in middle school.

  7. Oops, I posted before I was done, so let me try again.

    Thanks Meg for sharing with us, I was hoping you would with your experience with an older child. You bring up a really good point about the importance of having your child understand their illness so they choose to stay on their medication.

  8. When we did extensive testing with the psychologist, Maddox was there when we went over the results. He was mostly playing his video game, but I suspect he listened more than it appeared. In the car he asked me what ADHD was, and I told him that his brain works differently than most peoples, which makes it hard for him to focus, but that it also makes him very creative and smart. We then went home to find out what celebrities have ADHD and discussed why it helped them become something really special.

    We haven't really delved into the mood disorders/bipolar issue too much, but we approach it the way you do, addressing symptoms as they occur and telling him that his brain is making him do things he shouldn't and that we take medicine to try to help his brain learn the right way to think. We just need to find the right medicine that works best. (Still a bit of a struggle for us...)

    I absolutely LOVE the show Parenthood!!! It has so many different story lines that are rooted in reality and the writing and acting are outstanding! I heard rumor that it might be cancelled and I SOOOO hope that's not true! :(

  9. Thanks for sharing Gina!

    After reading your post, I looked up the rumors on Parenthood and read that it was renewed for the second season, but is in trouble with ratings and may not for the third. I can't believe it doesn't have higher ratings, it’s the best tv show on right now! I’ll be so sad if it goes!

  10. Look forward to watching Parenthood tonight and appreciated all the comments. Mama Bear, it sounds like you're saying all the right things to your son. I told my daughter, who's almost 9, that she has bipolar disorder when she started taking medication at age 7. She asked a lot of questions and I figured being honest was best. But now I kind of regret it. If I had it to do again, I would probably just stick with the "your brain works differently" explanation until she's older.

    1. My daughter started showing signs at age 7.5. How often were your daughter's episodes before medication? After?
      On average for my daughter before medication 4 times a week. Now on medication 2 times.
      We are trying new far this week one every day lasting 1 hour to 1.5. Yesterday she broke a window with her foot before school. We are trying valproic acid..low dose till the end of the week and then we increase.

  11. Bugs Mom,
    Yep, I can't wait to see it tonight too! I was just curious, why do you regret telling your daughter she is bipolar? You don't have to share if you don't want to, but I thought I would ask and maybe learn from your own experience.

  12. Hi Mama Bear,

    Sorry-- I didn't explain myself very clearly about regretting telling her she's bipolar. I worry that I've made her more aware of her differences by using that label. Plus, she sometimes tells other people, like kids at school she doesn't know that well, that she has it. And at this age, I don't think she--or they--are really able to understand what that means.

    1. I haven't said anything because I don't want my daughter to "buy" into the label. Also I agree she talks at school because she doesn't know about the stigma of mental illness. Sometimes she tells her friends that she was at the hospital, then their mothers ask me why, and I always lie about the reason.

    2. I too have lied to another mom, sometimes it is the best thing to do, especially if you don't trust the other person. It's a sad reality we have in raising our kids.