Why we need to talk to children about our mental health struggles
Many parents worry talking to children about mental health issues like anxiety or depression could cause them to develop these conditions. Research shows having open conversations about mental health can help children to learn how to cope with their own struggles in a healthier way. It can also help children to have a better understanding of their emotions and be more self-aware as they grow up.
As much as we want to shelter our children from any negative experiences and keep them innocent of life’s struggles, depression and anxiety are normal things that all adults go through. And just like being physically sick, it’s impossible for someone who spends as much time with you as your child not to be aware or impacted by your ill health. The younger the child is when the parent becomes depressed, the greater the impact can be on the child so it is important at all stages to try as best as we can to protect our child from this.
How to help children understand poor parental mental health
There are lots of things that you can do as parents to help your child understand and cope with your poor mental health.
Children usually do well if the depressed parents are able to be supportive and nurturing even when they are feeling really low. Obviously, this is not always possible so having a good support network such as another parent or caring adult who is able to step in when you cant manage and being able to explain today you don’t feel well enough to look after them if they are old enough to understand is extremely beneficial.
Being honest with your child, listening, and explaining depression and its symptoms in age-appropriate language is the best way to prevent your child from being impacted by how you are feeling.
The truth is that most children will pick up on the fact that you are not well. If you try to cover up the truth, they may make up stories about what is happening that are more frightening than the actual situation, particularly in the case of younger children.
Five ways to start the conversation
Here are five things you can say to start the conversation with children about your struggles with depression or anxiety or any other mental health issue.
- Mummy’s feeling sad right now and it is not anything you have done. This one is so important as when children don’t understand a situation they often make up their own narrative which can be much scarier.
- Depression is an illness and it is not something I am choosing to have. Explaining to children depression is an illness just like when they have been sick with a bug or a tummy ache is really relatable. We need to stop distinguishing between mental and physical health as it's all just health.
- You know how you got sad when you lost your teddy? Mummy feels like that sometimes and it lasts a few days. Finding ways to help children understand in a literal way is particularly good with younger children.
- Sometimes Mummy just feels sad and that might be why I don’t smile a lot or want to play. Give real examples of when you are feeling depressed and it directly affects them. This can help them to learn it’s not their fault when other people are feeling sad. People-pleasing in adulthood often stems from a feeling in children that it is their job to make others happy.
- Read a book with them about depression and then refer to how you behave when this happens to you. There are so many great books about mental health for all ages nowadays Iparticuarly like Rubys Worrys by Tom Percival for younger children.
There are so many references to mental health now, even watching Encanto and talking about how mental health affects all the characters in different ways could be a great reference. You don’t need to talk to them as though you have everything figured out or a plan in place as to when you will be “cured.”
Being honest and reassuring them that despite your illness, everything is going to be fine and that they don’t need to be afraid is what they need to hear. What your children need most from you is reassurance that they are loved that this is not anything they have done and that everything will be okay.
Choose a time to talk to your child that you will not be interrupted and where your child feels comfortable for example while doing a favourite activity together or riding in the car. Give them time to think about what you’ve shared and time for them to understand and be open to questions and ask them how they feel.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself, Your child needs to know that depression is an illness and you are not choosing to behave like this it is a symptom of feeling unwell.