Kids in Control

Program is designed to teach kids how to cope with a parent suffering from mental illness

A program to help children learn to cope with a mentally ill parent has come to our region for the first time and parents are invited to sign up their children

Kids in Control gives children confidence and the understanding that their parent’s illness isn’t their fault and the knowledge that they can control some things in their lives.

The free education and support program is looking for six to eight children between the ages of eight and 12 who have a parent with mental illness to meet for 1.5 hours once a week for eight weeks.

The program is looking to fill the spaces it has and so far, there are only four children signed up to participate, says Dolly Hall of the local chapter of the BC Schizophrenia Society that’s hosting the program.

“Either word’s not getting out or people don’t know what it is,” she says about why more children haven’t been signed up.

Or it could be the stigma about mental illness or the fear that child protective services may get involved in the family’s life if it’s known there’s mental illness in the family, she adds.

Children with a parent with mental illness, which Hall prefers to call brain illness in an attempt to clear away the stigma, experience a loss of a normal parent, a normal home, and a normal childhood.

“What we consider normal I guess,” she says.

Since the stigma around mental illness continues to be in society, children also lose out on having friends home for sleepovers, she says.

“Kids blame themselves and feel responsible,” she says about how children feel about their parent’s mental illness and other fears they shouldn’t have to face, such as being separated from their parent if hospitalized. Substance abuse and divorce can also add to the problem.

“While those happen without brain illness, they tend to be confounded in families with brain illness,” says Hall.

“Kids depend on their parents so coming to Kids in Control shows them what aspects of their lives they can control,” she says.

The message they get from the program is they’re not alone and their situation is normalized because there are lots of other kids in the same situation and it gives them a connectedness to other kids dealing with similar situations, she explains.

There’s a choice of activities to do in the program, and they learn healthy communication skills, self-care, gain self-esteem, learn resiliency and it helps them learn coping skills, she says. Plus they learn about brain illnesses, she adds.

Comments from children who have taken the course say it makes their parent’s illness not seem as bad, that living with the facts is better than living with the unknown and learning to deal with the stigma has been helpful.

One child was convinced that his father’s illness was his fault and he couldn’t be convinced otherwise.

When he took the program, he was able to understand he wasn’t the cause of his dad’s illness.

“I consistently use the term ‘brain illness to change it from mental illness,” says Hall, adding she thinks that a lot of the stigma is because of the terminology used.

“I think general population hears that word and it’s airy fairy. What is mental illness? But if you hear brain illness, it attaches it to an organ and gives it more credibility.”

Hall and colleague Noreen Spence will facilitate the program.

“I grew up with a mother who was depressed so I kind of know what it’s like,” says Hall.

They can share their personal experiences but they will be inviting professional people to come so the children can connect with them and they can answer any questions Hall and Spence can’t.

Once enough children are registered for the program, the schedule will be figured out so it can be 10 consecutive weeks and work around the parents’ and children’s schedules.

Some of the legacies of being a child of a parent with a brain illness can include difficulties with intimacy and setting boundaries, lost dreams, and resentment leading to family loss and depression.