Explaining your anxiety or depression to your child

Talking to your child about your mental health can be daunting, but it's good for your child’s health and well-being.

For a parent, explaining your mental illness such as depression or anxiety to your child can be a delicate conversation to have. Health professionals realize this is a sensitive topic to approach, yet many suggest that having these conversations ensures and protects the child’s health and well-being. Dr. Janine Domingues is a clinical psychologist in the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center at The Child Mind Institute. In this article, she shares some key insights as to how parents can best communicate their illness to their child in a way that is healthy and supportive for both parties.

You may be concerned that talking to your child about your mental illness will make them more nervous, anxious or depressed. In fact, children are extremely receptive. More than likely, they have noticed times when you have not been feeling well. By sharing details of your mental health condition, you give them clarity, which can help ease unnecessary worry of the unknown.

Some parents feel they should wait until a child is “ready” to have the talk. Yet, in reality, there is no perfect time or age when this conversation should occur. Domingues says that when and how you have the discussion are most important. During times of increased stress and struggle where the child has noticed your behavior shift, may open opportunities to have this conversation.

Domingues offers some tips on how to talk to your child about your mental illness:

  • Be mindful of your child’s developmental stage and tailor the conversation in a way they can easily understand what they must know. With teens, you want take time to talk about what anxiety or depression is and how it affects you. Start with an example of a time you felt anxious and depressed and what those symptoms looked like for you. With school-aged children, you can have a similar conversation; however use language that describes what anxiety or depression means such as worried, nervous, and sad. School-aged children are concrete thinkers so it helps to give them a concrete example of what the symptoms might look or sound like. “The other day when we were late getting to school, I was feeling extra worried and I may have yelled and seemed grouchy.”
  • Be honest with your explanations and open to your child’s question. It is okay if you say you do not know. In these instances say, “I don’t know that right now but when I find out I’ll be sure to tell you.”
  • Assure your child that you are receiving help to improve your mental health, like meeting with a doctor every week, taking medication, eating nutritious foods, and getting enough exercise, etc. This lets them know that there is an action plan and that they will be taken care of as well.
  • Assure your child that it is not their fault, and that mental illness cannot be “caught,” like a cold. Explain that sometimes, everyone feels anxious and sad. You are getting help because your anxiety or depression is making things messy for you and you do not feel well. Tell them it is also okay if they feel worried or scared at times. This could be a great opportunity to explain that there are ways to feel better, like taking deep breaths, going for a walk, or talking to someone about your feelings.
  • Keep the conversations ongoing. Assure your child that you are open to any questions they have, at any time. Let them know that you will continue to explain difficult situations that occur and that you have a plan to deal with them. 

These discussions are important in building family resiliency during times of stress and depression. Other practices to keep in mind include coping ahead as a family. This includes creating coping strategies ahead of time and being mindful during stressful situations. For parents, this means mindfully taking care of your own needs and health, prioritizing whatever is most important in the moment, and having a planned routine to help other members of the family feel more at ease during difficult times.  Have a back-up plan in place with a co-parent or other adult caregiver when you feel the need to disengage. In addition, be mindful of your expressions and words you say. Try to model “distress tolerance” like deep breathing, positive self-talk, or problem solving to set a positive example for your children.

To maintain a nurturing family atmosphere, Domingues says small things can make a big impact. Keep a constant morning and bedtime routine. Be sure to schedule quality time. This can be family dinners, watching favorite shows together, or a family walk after dinner. You can also include time each week to continue the conversation about your depression and anxiety and check in to see how your child is doing and feeling.

Another tool to help you have these conversations is reading books together. For more on these topics, check out:

  • Wishing Wellness: A Workbook for Children of Parents with Mental Illness by Lisa Anne Clarke. This interactive workbook covers things like how the brain works, causes and symptoms of mental illness, feelings, good relationships with parents, talking to friends and others, roles, rights and responsibilities in families, coping with prejudice and building a circle of support.
  • Please Explain Anxiety to Me! By Laurie Zelinger and Jordan Zelinger. This book gives accurate information on anxiety in plain language that children and their parents can understand. Although this book focuses on a child’s anxiety, the simplicity of explanation can be a fun, interactive reading experience for you and your child. It gives some simple, easy to remember rhymes at the end to teach coping skills, both parents and children can use.
  • What to Do When Your Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety by Dawn Huebner. This book also focuses on a child’s anxiety, however gives some fun interactive worksheets and analogies that can provide some family resiliency building time when done together.  

By having these conversations in a meaningful way, your child can increase their ability to separate their own emotional responses from their parents’ behavior and begin to build and maintain trust in a caring adult.

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