Talking to Your Kids About Mental Illness: Developing Empathy

Mother talking with son on deck
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Every parent wants to help their children develop empathy for those around them. It’s an important element of their spiritual development. The apostle Paul reminds us of this when he writes, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).

This is an especially vital principle when it comes to the issue of mental illness. As parents, we can help our children empathize with families impacted by mental illness in the same way they would those impacted by other challenges. It’s an issue we simply can’t ignore, especially when research shows that one in five adults and one in five youth aged 13-18 will experience mental illness in a given year.

For Christians, a critical component of developing empathy is recognizing that mental illness is not something one can simply “pray away.” Yet according to Ed Stetzer at Christianity Today, rel="noopener noreferrer" a recent LifeWay Research study revealed that roughly half of evangelical Christians say that mental illness can be healed by prayer and Bible study alone.

Many believers have embraced the false assumption that mental health issues can always be traced back to a sin issue in the individual’s life. But that is incorrect theology.

As Stetzer notes,

Natural disasters (tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes) as well as illnesses (Ebola, diabetes, cancer) are not the result or punishment for a particular sin or sinner. Maladies and disasters are evidence of the brokenness caused by the Fall of humankind. … As such, mental illness is not only a spiritual issue; it’s a natural illness from the brokenness caused by the Fall. We have to see that on top of spiritual measures, there are beneficial and helpful medications and treatments available to fight this illness.

If you or your children encounter a family impacted by mental illness, the first step is to avoid judgement or shame. Imagine walking a mile in their shoes and recognize that the challenges they’re facing are tied to a complicated combination of internal and external factors that lie far beyond their control. (For help in this arena, listen to Focus on the Family’s broadcast “How Mental Illness Impacts Families,” or check out Matthew S. Stanford’s book Grace for the Afflicted.)

Just as he did with the church at Philippi, the apostle Paul admonished the church at Galatia to practice empathy: “Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Galatians 6:2-3).

As you strive to instill this biblical virtue in your kids, make every effort to ensure that families impacted by mental illness are part of the equation.


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