How to explain mental illness to your kids

Like the vast majority of parents, my children are the light of my lives.  My son, Auron, is six; my daughter, Ayla is four, turning five in November.  I won’t sit here and wax on and on about how much I love them – I don’t have that kind of time, and you probably don’t have that level of interest.  But, for the sake of this blog entry, please understand that they are one of my main reasons for living, my biggest source of joy and a constant fountain of entertainment, surprise and hilariousness.

So, I suspect many parents can sympathize: Having children when you have depression can add innumerable guilt and sadness to an already debilitating disorder.

When I think about depression in relation to my kids, I think of it from two angles.  First is how it will likely one day affect them.  There is no question that mental illness has a strong genetic component.  Also, as much as it pains me to admit it and as hard as I try to make it otherwise, I suspect that both of my kids will learn some of my behavior and internalize it. Even more unfortunate is that a major source of childhood trauma is having a parent with a mental health disorder, and an expanding body of research has shown that these Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, can have significant and detrimental effects on the life of a child.

One of the symptoms of depression is guilt, and lemme tell you, this entry is not helping.

Second is how my disorder affects their lives.  As much as I hate to admit it, depression and anxiety have affected my parenting skills.  There’s no doubt that there have been times where it has affected my mood, made me snappier or less willing to do things.  Kids can tell when you are worried or down.  They are like little sponges.  They just know when things are off, and they are far, far more intuitive than most people realize.

So, all of this leads me to the critical question of today’s blog entry: How do you talk to your kids about depression?

Obviously, the answer to this question depends on the age of your child.  The first time it ever came up for me was when my son was about four and happened to walk into the bathroom when I was taking my medication:

“Dad, what are you doing?”

“Taking my pills, buddy.”

“Oh.”  Pause.  “Are you sick?”

Me, internally: Crap.  

Followed by: “Well, Auron, you know how people sometimes get really sad?  Or really scared?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, Daddy sometimes gets really scared or sad for no reason.  These pills help make sure I don’t get too scared or too sad, and they make it easier for me to have a good day.”

“Oh.  I’m gonna go watch Bubble Guppies.”

At that age, I think that was a pretty good way to describe it: Simply, and by relating it to something they already understood.  As my kids have gotten older, I’ve expanded that conversation to talking about it to a stigma perspective.  Whenever we are trying to illustrate something that we think is silly (All boys are better than girls at sports by default, for example), we scream “THAT’S NONSENSE!”  I’ve used that frame to describe how some people don’t think it’s okay to get sad, or get scared, and to try to tell the kids that anyone who is sad or scared should see a Doctor, just like if they had a broken arm.  Do they understand it?  I think so.  I hope so, anyway!

As they get older, it is my hope that the way I have dealt with my mental illness – openly and honestly – will help them recognize the symptoms of it within themselves.  I never want my kids to think that whatever circumstances they may be born with are completely out of their control – I want them to know that they do have the ability to deal with whatever challenges they may face.

I cannot control the mental illness that I have anymore than I can control the weather.  But, just like dealing with a rainy day, I can bring an umbrella.  I can take care of myself by ensuring that I see my therapist when necessary, that I take my daily medication, that I recognize my mistakes and try to learn from them, and by practicing good coping skills.  In that way, I hope I can teach my kids a very critical lesson: You cannot always control the hand that you are dealt, but you can control how to react to it.

As always, I welcome your comments.  How have you dealt with your own mental illness when it comes to your kids?  What have you said – and what have you left unsaid?  Let us know below!

2 thoughts on “How to explain mental illness to your kids

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