The old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” is simply not true. Words are powerful. Use the right ones and you can make a great first impression, get that promotion you’ve been seeking, or land a date with your crush. Use the wrong words and you could miss an opportunity, lose a job, or alienate friends and family. That’s why it’s so important to choose your words carefully, especially when it comes to speaking to parents who have children with a mental illness. The wrong words can be upsetting and damaging. It’s important to note, that this isn’t merely a trend to be politically correct. Instead, this is about being respectful and responsible with your words to facilitate better communication. One in five children suffer from mental illness; that’s 80,000 children in Bexar County alone. Chances are you know parents who have a child or children with a mental illness. When speaking to them, please pay attention to the following considerations of what not to say.
“Wow. She/He sounds like a troublemaker.”
This should be an obvious one. In a previous 1in5 Minds blog, we talked about how any name calling like “crazy, psycho, nuts, etc.,” perpetuates the stigma of mental illness. You certainly wouldn’t call a child that has been diagnosed with anemia “lazy.” The same goes with a child that has a mental illness. As anemia tends to make a child sleepy and/or listless, a mental illness may cause negative or impulsive behavior. Christina Halli, mother of a child with bipolar disease, reiterates this message in Healthy Place, “It is important to differentiate bad behavior from the behavioral symptoms of mental illness.”
“Do you think you sheltered him/her too much?”
It’s natural for people to want to come up with a reason that a child may be experiencing mental illness. As a result, some may insinuate that a child developed mental illness due to some aspect of a parent’s caretaking skills. This is not only unfair, it’s inaccurate. Friends for Mental Health states, “Mental illness is not the result of the way a person was raised… but rather a biological predisposition associated with environmental or personal factors that create a breeding ground for mental illness to develop.“
“My daughter had a tantrum today, so I know how you feel.”
A child’s bad day doesn’t qualify someone, no matter how well intentioned, to relate what it’s like for a parent with a child that’s dealing with a mental illness day in and day out. While the child’s parent may appreciate that you are trying to relate to them and their struggles, it’s important that you not over-inflate “normal, everyday” experiences. Psychology Today points out, “… you may feel as though you are expressing solidarity with someone, but what you are doing is, one, making it about you, and, two, marginalizing the uniqueness of the person’s experience.”
“I’m sure it will pass.”
Certainly a parent who has a child with mental illness would love the mental illness to simply “go away;” however, this isn’t a kind or realistic thing to say. Parents of children with mental illness must treat the condition in the same way they would treat a physical condition, with medical attention and a treatment plan. Sandra Charron, blogger for Huffington Post reiterates saying, “Hopefully it will pass, but there is no guarantee, and unless you are a physician… please do not make such a blanket statement. It minimizes the severity of the ailment.”
We’ve all been in situations where we’re not sure what to say or how to say it, and it’s not always comfortable talking to someone who is struggling. But remember, small gestures can make a big difference. The most important thing you can do is to let people know you’re there to listen and help in any way you can.