What can I say to a 5 year old, when his parent is mentally unwell?
How can I explain, what can I do with him, and what structures can we put in place, to make his mother's (temporary, but severe) illness easier on him?
His parents illness is episodic, and has only happened twice before, under fairly extreme stress, during which she was hospitalized. She is currently anxious, manic, and a bit paranoid. Meds have just started.
During the last hospitalisation, when he was only 4, it was clear he was aware his mother was not well, and heartbreakingly, that even though he loves his mother, and is a very obedient, he would quickly and obviously check out what other adults reactions were, before doing anything she told him to do. Which was so the right action, but so, so heartbreaking that he was only 4, and aware enough that he had to do that with his own mother.
Things that helped when he was 4:
We watched My Neighbour Totoro, which turned out to be a huge blessing, because it showed how sometimes mummies have to go to the hospital to get well, and kids can't stay there, and yes it is disappointing when they can't come back home when we want them to. And we made cards for her, like how they gave corn with a message in the movie. I also talked about how people can be very confused, sad, or angry when they're sick. And that it's just because they're sick, not because of us, and they were in the hospital to get better enough to come home, and then when Mum came back, she might still be a bit confused, but we'd look after her til she was all better.
This time, she is not as bad, but she is also at home rather than hospital (Yay! No seriously, mental ward was scariest place ever. She has at least 1 other adult in the house at all times).
He is a bright kid. I remember how coherently, and logically I thought about things when I was his age, and while I was naive, I was fiercely intelligent, and he is the same. I also know that a 5 year olds perceptions don't have the experience of an adult behind them, so I want to make sure he's ok in that smart little head of his.
He's definitely reserved on things like this, even though I am (apparently) his favorite person in the world.
She would never, ever hurt him, but she gets paranoid about his safety, and keeps asking him questions to check on him.
I've just been working in the past couple of days on him telling Mum he needs 'quiet time' if she asks him too many questions, etc, and having her understand that that's what he will say if he wants to not talk for awhile.
He been acting out a tiny bit, by being a little manic and silly with her, which we're trying to get *her* not to worry about (and that the response is not to check on him/overstimulate him).
He calms down with us, and he's pretty mellow in general.
I haven't been searching the right terms to find any online resources for this situation, or for appropriate ways to explain it to 5 years olds, or things to do.
I did find a list for children of a bipolar parent, and am going to try to let him know:
• Her actions/behavior have nothing to do with me.
• Her actions/behavior have nothing to do with her love for me.
• If a conversation gets uncomfortable, get up immediately and leave the situation, do not engage.
• (Adapted to "I need quiet time, Mummy")
• If confused about unreasonable words/actions, seek counsel from a trusted friend/adult/parent
• Parents are not perfect
What else can you suggest?
In a few more weeks, she should be ok. She is normally an excellent parent. It is only the second time in his life this has happened, and it is triggered by stress.
Just so his safety is clear:
I am one of two other adults caring for him in the same house as him and his Mum, with backup from other relatives, he has a great school, afterschool care, and we have another relative who might be coming up in a few days to share the load, and being away from his mother entirely does not seem reasonable in anyone's opinion.
So yeah, story books (accessible ones?), movies?
What do you wish the adults around you had made clear to you if you had a parent who was unwell when you were a child?