My children (who are nine and six) know that I have anxiety and depression. They don’t know those words, but I explain them in a child-friendly way when I am experiencing symptoms of each of those mental health issues. When I am anxious, I tell the kids “Mommy is feeling nervous right now. She needs to breathe for a moment.” I verbalize my feelings so my kids are not afraid of what’s going on. I think one of the best things you can do when talking to your kids about mental health issues is to be transparent. Transparency is key because children are incredibly perceptive and more than we give them credit for. They see and hear a lot of what we’re up to and that includes our mental health issues.
With depression it is tricky, and we need to be mindful that crying can be alarming to our kids. They may not understand why I am crying. I assure my kids that crying is a part of life. It’s perfectly normal to experience sadness and let it out in the form of tears. I am tender in the way that I explain depression to my kids. I say things like:
“Mommy is feeling sad right now. It’s okay to cry when you’re sad, and that’s why I’m crying. Don’t worry, you didn’t do anything wrong.”
Children often find the need to comfort us when we are sad, which I believe is okay. But make sure to explain to your kids that they didn’t cause your sadness, it’s simply something that you are dealing with.
Another thing to remember is that when you’re depressed, you need to find external support. Your kids are reacting to your symptoms, and that’s perfectly normal, but you need to engage in self-care. One thing you can do is seek out resources and help for depression, such as depression chat. There is power in expressing yourself to a community of people who truly understand what you’re going through in a way that children are obviously not equipped for.
Your children care about you, and when you live with clinical depression (or any mental health issue for that matter) they inevitably concerned about your well-being. The best thing you can do is be honest about what you are going through in an age-appropriate way. You don’t need to reveal too much information; just tell them in a concise way what you’re dealing with so that they understand.
I asked my six-year-old this question: “what can I say when I’m crying so that you can understand what’s going on?” She said:
“You can say ‘I’m crying because my friend is going to college’.”
I found this answer informative because she was saying – I want an explanation as to why you’re crying. That makes a lot of sense to me, and I want to honor that request. When I’m tearful, I will try my best to explain to my girl why I’m sad in a way that she can understand. Children can internalize more than you think they can. So, be gentle, be honest and let your kids know that even though you’re experiencing anxiety, depression, anger or any other feeling, that it’s okay. You are going to be okay, and they did not cause this feeling to happen. You have your own feelings and you are managing them as best you can.