- Parents who struggle with mental illness may be unsure whether to share that information with their children.
- How parents talk about mental health could impact their child's understanding for years to come.
- Certain strategies could be beneficial for those parents who choose to talk about their mental health.
We all face daily decisions about what we want to share and keep private from family members, friends, or acquaintances. We decide when to share information about our plans for the day, finances, health, work, or stressful events, down to whether we liked the movie we just saw.
Communication scholar Sandra Petronio developed communication privacy management theory to help us understand the issues and choices surrounding what information we will share with others (and not). The theory helps us understand the personal information we believe we own and how we decide when we want other people to become co-owners of our private information. The theory also helps us consider what information we believe other people should share with us (and not) (Petronio et al., 2022).
Often we do not give private information much thought until we experience others treating private information differently than we wish. For example, I was not aware of how much more my own family expected information to remain private. I often heard “information about the family stays in the family.” Also, we rarely expressed what we were thinking and feeling to each other. I thought every family treated information about the family the same way we did. My family’s privacy rules became clearer to me as I started spending time with other families. I learned that other families had different expectations for sharing private information. I was surprised by what they would talk about around the dinner table and what they would share with outsiders.
Revealing and Concealing Information about Mental Health
Communication researcher Shawn Starcher, a faculty member in Communication Studies at Muskingum University in Ohio, and I are writing this blog featuring his research on communication about mental health. Shawn studies how people decide when it is best to reveal or conceal information about their mental health.
Shawn’s research is very relevant to professionals working with families as well as family members themselves concerning communicating about mental health. Talking about mental health is an ongoing challenge in any relationship, among friends, in families, in the workplace, in church, or within a community.
Mental health issues are often misunderstood and stigmatized. For the person experiencing mental health challenges, talking about it can be risky for them or affect their relationships in negative ways. There are also risks for receivers of information about another person’s mental health. For instance, what should the other person do or say when they sense that people are experiencing mental health challenges? Are they supposed to ask questions or wait to be told what is happening? What are they supposed to do or say once they have become co-owners of this private information?
Parents Revealing Mental Health Information to Children
The main focus of Shawn’s research concerns how parents who grapple with mental illness may face challenges in talking with their children about their mental health struggles.
- Parents tend to match the levels of openness of their own family of origin, even when that may not always be the healthiest route to take in adulthood (Starcher & Child, 2022). Parents should consider what they believe will be most helpful for them and their family concerning talking about their own mental health issues with their children.
- Parents should understand that how they talk about mental health may impact how future generations will view mental illness and communicate about this issue (Flood-Grady, et al., 2021). Children may be more likely to share their own depression-related information with parents if the parent and child have already openly discussed the topic (Starcher, 2019).
- Parents are often conflicted about sharing mental illness struggles with their children. In his research, Shawn found four parental motivations for disclosure about their own mental illness, including perceiving it is their duty to inform/educate others and as a sense of catharsis to reduce stress (Starcher, 2019).
- Parents may choose not to disclose mental issues to their children if they believe they are protecting their children (or themselves), especially from information about parental depression. Not only may parents worry about sharing information that may make them feel vulnerable, but a parent may also worry about children seeing them in a negative light.
- Parents often have competing motivations for revealing and concealing information about mental health. Parents may hope to find some relief when talking about their own mental health or they may feel a sense of duty to inform or educate their children. At the same time, parents may worry about protecting their children from worry or anxiety. These competing parental concerns give us some insight into the goals and concerns that parents juggle when considering depression-related disclosure with their children.
Helping parents get clarity on their own motivations to talk about depression and choose the right amount of openness may help them to have a more healthy dialogue with children about mental health-related issues and other important topics.
Factors for Parents to Consider Before Disclosing Mental Health
- Recognize that children want to understand what is happening with their parents and family. Children are often more aware of struggles that parents may be experiencing than parents realize.
- Consider children’s age and maturity when determining how open to be. What do parents believe the children need to know? What are children able to understand and handle? It may be good to share little pieces of information initially to see how children process and react to that information.
- Keep messages short and simple. Start with less complex and straightforward information. Use terminology children can understand without getting too complicated. See what questions and concerns children may have. Sharing about mental illness will likely involve ongoing discussion as children mature or when the situation for the parent changes.
- Help children manage their emotions and fears. The fact that parents are having mental and/or physical health challenges can be scary for children. Parents should be ready to help children handle this information without overburdening them. This may include getting professional help for children or the family. Parents should also be clear about what the children can do to be helpful.
- Be clear about confidentiality. Parents need to understand their own expectations regarding confidentiality. It is important to give children guidance on what, if anything, is OK for them to say to others. Some parents may allow or encourage openness while others may insist that children check with them before discussing information about the parent or family.
- Consider how children’s experiences and expectations for talking about mental health may impact how they will think and feel about mental and physical health across their lifespan.
These same tips will help you think about considerations regarding any important disclosure you are considering in your close relationships.
Flood-Grady, E., Starcher, S. C., Bergquist, G. L. (2021). Parental memorable messages about depression: Implications for perceived support, stigma, relational satisfaction, and treatment-seeking among young adults with depression. Health Communication.
Petronio, S., Child, J. T. & Hall, R. D. (2022). Communication privacy management theory: Significance for interpersonal communication. In D. O. Braithwaite & P. Schrodt (Eds.). Engaging theories in interpersonal communication: Multiple perspectives (3rd ed.). Routledge.
Starcher, S. C. (2019). Parental depression-related disclosures with children: An analysis using communication privacy management theory [doctoral dissertation]. Kent State University.
Starcher, S. C., & Child, J. T. (2022). Openness of parental disclosures about depression and children: Examining the impact of family privacy management and stigma. Western Journal of Communication.