How To Talk To Your Kids About Your Mental Health

When we’re raising children, it may be hard to acknowledge our own struggles and needs. We, parents, have a lot of responsibilities, and our challenges take a back seat to our kids’.

Our kids need to be kept safe, healthy, warm, fed, stable, and educated. They need to feel loved, most of all. All of that is more challenging in the era of COVID-19, too; we now have to balance our kids’ needs while being stretched to our limits by unprecedented circumstances.

The job has to get done, one way or another–but in the hustle to care for our kids, we may abandon self-reflection and self-care just to feel adequate.

One solution is to do what you do with other adults in tough times: explain your limitation, and find a mutually agreeable way to accommodate it. Kids have different comprehension abilities at different ages, so you’ll have to explain your struggle in a way they can understand.

This involves being comfortable talking about a simple fact of reality:

Parents have mental illnesses, too. 

Being a parent is a big job, and on top of it, you have personal issues to deal with. We’ve all heard the phrase, “put on your own oxygen mask first,” in regards to our mental health–but when it’s not life-or-death, we’re liable to suck it up and just get through our parenting duties with a fried brain. 

When you live with mental health concerns, you manage them the best you can; you might see a therapist, take medication, or do both. Maybe meditation or mindfulness works for you. It’s important to take care of your mental health as a parent, because it allows you to care for your children in the best way possible. 

But, what happens when you have a bad mental health day and nothing helps? Kids aren’t totally oblivious, and they probably notice something’s up.

What if your child wants to know what’s going on? What if they blame themselves? In this article, find some tips and ways to explain depression, anxiety, and other mental wellness struggles so that kids can understand.

There’s No Hiding Your Struggles, So You Might As Well Talk About Them

When you struggle with your mental wellbeing, you might feel unequipped to explain what’s going on–let alone to explain it to a child. You might work on this in therapy and talk to your friends and family members, and that helps. Or you might not have anyone to talk through your problems with. That is difficult in and of itself. 

Whether or not you can let your problems out to others, you might have to let them out to your kids; there are some days as a parent where you have a hard day and your kids happen to notice. This is inevitable. Kids are perceptive, and they only become more so as they grow older. So, what do you do?

Engaging With Your Emotions Helps

Regardless of your age group, your child will likely notice how you’re feeling, so it’s important to communicate clearly about your own emotions. They might notice subconsciously, or they might not say anything, but internalizing a sense of guilt and blame for parents’ emotions is pretty common among kids. So it’s important they understand that they’re not responsible for what you’re going through.

No matter what, it’s important to acknowledge and honor your feelings, so your kids can do the same (both for you, and with their own emotions). The first thing to do is to be aware of your emotions and process them the best way you can, so you can better explain them to your child.

How you talk about you mental health with your kids depends on how old your children are and what they’re able to understand. Below are some different variations on how you could handle the situation.

Explaining Mental Health To Kids, By Age Group

You need to survive, and pushing through depression, for instance, with affected high energy may worsen the situation for everyone involved.

Failing to honor your emotional needs leaves your kids without a model for processing their own emotions and needs. So instead of ignoring what you’re going through, explain in a way your child can understand.

Toddlers

Your toddler might want to play on a day you’re feeling depressed, and it’s difficult for you to explain to them that you don’t quite have as much energy to play as you’d like to. You still love them and want to pay them attention–but it’s hard for you to be excitedly engaged.

If they’re verbal, you can say, “Mommy is feeling down today, and she needs to rest. Let’s do something quiet together.” It’s okay to have your child play with blocks or other quiet toys while you lay down and supervise them. If you need to have them play on a tablet for a bit, that’s okay, too.

If this is a frequent situation for you and you find that you’re feeling down for many days, it’s definitely important to check in with a therapist and let them know what’s happening. They may have specific solutions for your situation.

School-Aged Children

When you have a child in Kindergarten up to fifth grade, they can understand more of what you’re dealing with. You begin to talk to them about emotional wellness in a more candid way.

Explain that depression is a common condition that affects millions of people, and that we can’t always help the way our emotions feel. Try to describe how your depression feels to you, and acknowledge how it changes your behavior toward your kid. “When I act like _____, I want you to always know that I’m just having a bad depression day. It’s never your fault!”

You can also try explaining your depression in terms of experiences your kid grasps. “Depression feels like when you miss your best friend over Summer break, or even like when you have a flu–except your friend is right there with you, and you’re not sick.”

You can even come up with a depression game plan together. Your child might feel good knowing they can take action to help, even if they didn’t cause your mental health struggle.

Try: “Next time I sleep through my alarm, that probably means I’m depressed. You have full permission to come into my room and give me a biiiiig hug and kiss,” or “On days when I’m depressed, I have to make sure to take good care of myself. Will you be my self-care buddy on days when I feel extra down?”

Again, make very clear that when you feel down, your child didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, nobody really did anything wrong. Instead, depression is a challenge you just live with, like anyone else has challenges. You’re continuing to work on it.

Being transparent, open, and honest with your kids will allow them to do the same toward both you and themselves. 

Teenagers 

Talking to teenagers about mental health can be tricky. They’re testing boundaries and may become resentful if you have emotional trouble, because they need you do be there for them, even if they’re pushing you away.

Full honesty and acknowledgement of the situation is where to start with teens. You can begin with, “Listen, I know you’re angry,” or “Listen, I know you’re frustrated and sad,” and continue with, “and you’re allowed to feel those ways.”

Next comes the leveling: “But I’m human, and my behavior is because I feel those ways, too. My depression/anxiety/etc is flaring right now, which is out of my control. I’m doing the best that I can not to let it impact you, but you’re my kid, so it does. It’s not always going to be like this, and we’ll work together through it.”

Let them know that if they’re feeling something and want to talk, you are there to listen. They are allowed to express how your mental health impacts them, and you do have to try to minimize that impact on them. You’re not automatically blameless because you’re the parent, or because you’re juggling parenting responsibilities with mental health. But you can ask for a little slack.

Honesty is the best policy, as they say, and being depressed or verbally expressing that you are depressed doesn’t mean you can’t be there for your children. It won’t make your children lose respect for you; in fact, it may accomplish the opposite.

Your depression as a parent just means that you need to be gentle with yourself, and be aware that you’re asking your kids to be patient with you. This may help you afford them the same patience, too! 

When To Seek Help

As a parent, you have a lot of obligations, and you want to be the best parent you can be. If you find that depression is impacting your daily ability to function–or parent–it’s crucial that you seek help for your mental wellbeing. This doesn’t mean you’re broken, crazy, or unfit to be a mom or dad. But failing to acknowledge your own struggles can impede your parenting ability.

Whether you see someone online or in your local neighborhood, seeking therapy or other support matters. Getting treatment for mental health struggles is something you need to do for yourself and your children.

Teaching your kids about your own mental wellness creates a safe environment for them to talk about their own emotions and their own lives. Your honesty will also allow them to empathize with friends and peers who struggle in the future.

Parents aren’t perfect, and neither are children, but we all must do the best we can with what we have. Know that it’s never too late to open up or ask for help, and that there’s always time to be an example for your kids in taking care of your emotional wellbeing. 

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