We have always wanted to make sure that our son understands my mental illness in a way that is appropriate for his age. In my opinion, it is not good for us to hide such things from our children because kids tend to think that things happening around them are their fault. I know even when we explain exactly what is going on and that an illness is not a child's fault, they will probably think it is sometimes. I want our son to know my mood changes are not due to anything he does and I want him to understand this illness as best he can so his internalization of what is happening can be kept to a minimum. However, I have found little resources for young children of parents with mental illness, especially bipolar disorder. So, I was very surprised when I was browsing the children's section of our local bookstore when we lived in Chicago (57 Street Books) and I found a book called Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry by Bebe Moore Campbell.
In this picture book, Annie's happy mother makes her golden pancakes in the morning, but Annie thinks "I hope that she is still smiling when I come home. Sometimes my mommy doesn't smile at all." When Annie gets home that afternoon, her mother is angry, yells at Annie and Annie asks her to stop yelling but knows her mother can't stop. Annie calls her grandmother for help, and her grandmother reminds her that she can take care of herself, to which Annie says "It's not fair. Every time my mommy has problems, I have to take care of myself."
Annie and her grandmother go over Annie's care plan, such as staying in her room, eating from her secret stash of food, going to the neighbors house in case things get really bad, and remembering that Annie can find sunshine in her own mind even if everything around her is dark.
The book ends with Annie caring for herself, finding joy in the falling rain and sunshine in her mind, and waiting for the next time her mommy isn't angry.
Overall, I think the book explains bipolar disorder in a way that is understandable to children. I am not so thrilled with the "play teasing" that the children in the book do to one another, but I can over look that. One of the things I really like is that the grandmother validates Annie's feelings, such as telling her that it is ok to be angry, it is ok to be scared, and then they create a plan for how to deal with what is going on. One thing I am a little unsure about is that the grandmother says Annie's mother has not asked for help yet, and it implies if she did, she would get better, which is not entirely accurate. Many of us work very hard to get better and still struggle with our illness every day.
Clearly though, this book is very accurate and I can tell because it makes me cry every time I read it. It describes so much of what my son goes through and how he has had to care for himself when I have been very sick. This is not something I want for him, yet it is a reality of our lives.
What I want him to know is that I fight this illness every minute, every hour, every day and will keep fighting so that we can have the best life possible. I hope he knows how much I love him, even when I am angry, which is also mentioned in the book. I make sure I explain what is going on, take time away if I get angry, and let him know that it is my illness making me angry or sad, not him. I find I have kind of gone overboard in this regard as he gets annoyed that I tell him I love him so frequently. He says "I know you love me Mommy, you don't have to tell me all the time!"