My child's birthmom has a mental illness


Focus on Adoption magazine

Explaining parental illness to a child can be hard - especially when the mental illness is connected to a child's adoption.

My eight-year-old daughter has been asking why her birthmom, who has a mental illness, couldn’t raise her.

Until recently, I described her birthmom as being “sick,” but I now realize that this made my daughter anxious that she might become ill and that, perhaps, she was thinking her mom’s “illness” might have had something to do with her. I needed a way of explaining mental illness to her that would give her compassion and understanding for her birthmom and that would make her feel more secure.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends that before talking to kids, parents become knowledgeable and comfortable with the subject of mental illness and that they have some basic answers to questions children may ask.

Young kids

The Academy suggests that young children need less information and fewer details. School age children, as was my experience, want more specifics; however, their concerns and questions are still usually straightforward. They are able to understand concepts such as depression or anxiety, but they are unlikely to want details about treatment. It is important to answer questions directly and honestly and to reassure them about their concerns and feelings.


Teenagers are generally capable of handling much more information and asking more specific and difficult questions, but they are often more open to talking to peers than parents. As a result, some teens may already have misinformation about mental illnesses. Teens respond more positively to open dialogue, including give and take, than to more one-sided conversations.

Explaining Mental Illness To Kids

What is a mental illness?

If someone has a mental illness, it means that their mind is ill. There are different kinds of mental illness. Often these involve feelings which most people get at some time or other, particularly after very upsetting things happen, but with mental illness these feelings are so strong, or last for so long, that they make it very difficult for a person to cope with everyday life.

Why do people get ill?

Things can go wrong with our bodies and we don’t always know why; it’s the same with our minds. Mental illness can be caused by too much or too little of a chemical in the brain. It can also be caused by bad experiences and problems. While one person may be able to deal with such experiences, another may find it much more difficult. Your birthmom might have gone through a bad experience, but it might be that you don’t know the reason for her mental illness. One thing is certain—it’s not your fault in the same way as it’s not your fault if your mom or dad gets a cold!

Do people get better?

Sometimes mental illness gets better and never returns. Sometimes it’s something that keeps happening, but people aren’t ill all the time and they cope with it either by themselves or with the help of others. Some people never recover fully, and they have to learn to live with their illness, usually with the help of medication.

Will I get the same illness?

Most people do not develop a mental illness because their parents were unwell. But, it’s also true that anyone can suffer from mental illness. The important thing is that when you are feeling sad, or unhappy, especially if it lasts for longer than usual, you should talk to someone about how you are feeling.