You feel like your world is closing in and all you want to do is retreat into your room. However, your children don’t realize that you have a mental illness and need time away. All they see is a parent who acts differently, snaps at them more than usual, and no longer wants to play with them.
Depression is sometimes difficult for children to understand. Discussing it with your kids can be a tricky endeavor. But getting your condition out in the open — in a thoughtful, sensitive, age-appropriate way — can make it easier for your kids to cope the next time an episode hits.
Here are 10 tips for talking to your children about depression.
1. Get yourself situated first
Only once you’ve taken steps to understand and treat your condition can you explain it to your children. If you haven’t already seen a psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist, consider doing so. Speaking with a therapist can help you find out what may be contributing to your depression. Also speak with your doctor about starting a comprehensive treatment plan. Then you can tell your kids you’re already taking steps to help yourself feel better.
2. Make the conversation age-appropriate
Explaining what depression is to a young child may be difficult, but it’s not impossible. How you approach the topic should be based on your child’s developmental stage.
With very young children, speak in simple language and use examples to describe how you feel. For example, you might say, “Do you know how you got really sad when your friend didn’t invite you to her party? Well, sometimes mommy feels sad like that, and the feeling lasts for a few days. That’s why I may not smile a lot or want to play.”
By the time kids reach middle school you can start to introduce concepts like depression and anxiety, without going into too much detail about your daily battles or the medication you take. However, encourage your children to ask questions about anything they don’t fully understand.
When talking to high school-aged kids, you can be more straightforward. Say that you sometimes get depressed or anxious, and describe how it makes you feel. You can also go into more detail about your treatment plan.
3. Know your audience
How kids absorb information varies. Some children learn more effectively while playing. Some learn best with visual aids or enactments. Others are more comfortable having a straightforward discussion without any distractions. Tailor the approach you use to what best suits your child’s learning capacity and preference. This can make a big difference in their ability to understand your depression.
4. Be honest
It isn’t always easy to talk about your own mental health — especially with your children. Yet covering up the truth can backfire on you. When kids don’t know your full story, they sometimes fill in the holes themselves. Their version of your situation could be much more frightening than the reality.
It’s all right to tell your kids when you don’t know the answer to their questions. It’s also acceptable to say that you won’t get better overnight. You may have some ups and downs as you try to become healthy. Try to be as open with them as you can.
5. Keep up the family routine
During depressive episodes, you might find it impossible to stick with your normal schedule. But do your best to keep the family in a routine. Young children can sense when something is wrong. Having a routine in place may help offset imbalance and prevent your children from sensing your unease. Plan regular mealtimes where you all gather around the table to talk and set aside time for family activities like watching movies or playing board games.
6. Calm their fears
Whenever kids are confronted with an illness — physical or mental — it’s normal for them to be frightened. They might ask, ‘Will you get better?’ or ‘Are you going to die?’ Reassure them that depression isn’t fatal, and with the right treatment you should start to feel better. Also, make it clear to your kids that they are in no way to blame for how you feel.
7. Let them absorb the news
When kids get unexpected and upsetting news, they need time to process it. Give them time to think about what you’ve told them.
Once they’ve had a few hours or days with the information, they’ll probably come back to you with questions. If they don’t have much to say at first and you haven’t heard back from them in a few days, check in with them to make sure they’re OK.
8. Share your treatment strategy
A disease as open-ended as depression can be hard for kids to understand. Let your children know that you’re seeing a doctor and getting treatment. If you don’t yet have a treatment plan, assure them that you’re going to create one with the help of your doctor. Knowing that you’re taking concrete steps to address your depression will reassure them.
9. Have a backup plan
There may be times when you don’t feel up to parenting. Tell your kids how you’ll let them know when an episode has arrived. Have someone on deck to provide coverage — like your spouse, a grandparent, or a neighbor.
10. Ask for help
Not sure how to talk to your kids about your depression? Ask your psychologist or a family therapist to help you start the conversation.
If your kids are having trouble dealing with your depression, make an appointment for them see a child psychologist. Or, get advice from a trusted teacher or their pediatrician.