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How to talk to kids about your mental illness

Parenting is challenging in the most ideal of circumstances—but when a parent is also experiencing a mental health problem, the typical stresses of parenthood can become much more difficult to manage. As a parent who lives with depression and anxiety, I often worry about how these conditions might affect my children. How do I explain how and why I am not a typical parent to them in ways they can understand and grow from?

To start, we have to recognize that parents with mental illness are still valued and valuable. “It is important to note that mental health struggles do not diminish the value or lifelong impact of a parent,” says Maureen Gomeringer, MSW, LCSW, psychotherapist and assistant clinical director at MindPath Care Centers at Carolina Partners in North Carolina.

“It is important to be clear on this issue because anxiety, depression, ADHD, and substance use disorders can evoke such shame in parents that they can start to question whether their children would be better off without them,” says Gomeringer. “There are very few scenarios in which the answer to that question is yes.”

The challenges of parenting with a mental health condition

Still, being a parent who struggles with mental health creates unique challenges. “Anxiety and mood disorders are probably the most common mental health issues that parents are likely to experience,” says Victoria Shaw, Ph.D., LPC, an intuitive counselor and parent coach. “This includes postpartum depression and anxiety, which affect an estimated 10% to 20% of new mothers.”

Simply put, “Depression can make it extremely challenging to carry out simple tasks and to care for oneself, let alone care for the complex needs of one’s child,” says Shaw. “A parent who is depressed may also have difficulty connecting emotionally with their child, and may become easily frustrated or overwhelmed by their child’s emotions, needs, and behaviors.”

Children look to their parents to develop their own sense of self, and when parents have a self-image that is distorted by mental illness, it can make the process more complex.

“The inability to self-regulate and control one’s own emotions means that it is far more difficult to support your children in learning to self-regulate,” says Shaw.

Anxiety disorders can lead parents to become over-protective or withdrawn socially. This is something I struggle with as a parent with social anxiety. Playdates and other social situations cause me great stress, and my instinctive reaction is to pull away. While this makes me feel less anxious, it can isolate my children because they rely on me to be their social director.

Teaching your children about mental health

Whether or not you’re a parent with mental illness, you should start explaining mental and emotional health to your children in infancy and continue with changing approaches to suit the child’s age and maturity levels.

Gomeringer points out that we are diligent in teaching children good habits for physical health, such as healthy eating, getting enough sleep, and practicing good hygiene. Similar attention should be given to teaching children how to care for their mental health.

“During early toddlerhood, when parents are teaching their children about animals and sounds and parts of the body, introduction of feeling words is appropriate and wise,” says Gomeringer. “Reflecting to children what their feelings are and pairing the feeling with the action, item, or person they are responding to is the foundation of good mental health.”

Shaw stresses distinguishing emotions from actions. Emotions are never wrong, but actions certainly can be. “Let your child know that it is perfectly okay to feel angry when their brother grabs [their] toy, but it is not okay to hit him.”

Talking about mental health with children

The same can be applied to speaking to children about a parent’s own mental health. 

1. Acknowledge if you are unkind.

Gomeringer suggests parents take responsibility for their own actions, acknowledging when they have reacted poorly to a situation.

“State the facts,” says Gomeringer. A conversation may go something like this:

“Mommy gets irritable and easily frustrated sometimes. When that happens, mommy sometimes yells more and is less patient—like when I yelled at you and said that you didn’t care about anything and you were disrespectful for dropping your drink on the carpet. I am sorry that I yelled and that I said you didn’t care about anything. I know that you care a lot and that you were trying to be careful. I know that it was an accident. And accidents happen. I do not believe you were being disrespectful. Sometimes mommy says angry things, and that is not okay. I am sorry. I will work on using my words to say how I feel instead of saying angry things.”  

Say what you did wrong, and how you’ll try not to do it again. Don’t be afraid to say you’re sorry if you overreacted.

2. Explain that mental illness isn’t their fault.

Children tend to internalize, so it is important to reassure them that their parent’s mental illness is not their fault, nor their responsibility to manage. Discussing the specific condition the parent has, just as you would a physical condition, can be helpful if age-appropriate.

3. Remind kids that you love them.

“They also need to know that their parents still love them and that they are safe, and cared for,” says Shaw. This is particularly important if a parent’s mental illness results in their inability to care for his or her child or causes an absence such as hospitalization.

Gomeringer cautions not to inadvertently equate dysfunctional behavior with showing love. Children need to know that their parents love them, but that the disorder can cause the expression and experience of that love to be distorted.

4. Describe how you are getting help.

The most important thing a parent who lives with mental illness can do is seek help. “It is not helpful to speak of mental health conditions as permanent or unchanging. They rarely are—in the depth of symptoms or in recovery,” says Gomeringer. “Mental health conditions can be permanent in that symptoms may return. But the impact can change dramatically with professional support, coping skills, emotional regulation skills, and social support. It is important for children to know that seeking help can make things better.”

With proper treatment, self-awareness, and good communication between parent and child (including openness for any questions that may arise), parents with mental illness can be caring, attentive, and effective parents. Remember to take care of them, you need to take care of yourself.

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