When depression or anxiety holds the grip on you, your children can feel it, but they can’t understand it. It’s natural for them not to be able to understand something so complex, but it affects them nevertheless.
It’s your job as a parent to make sure that your children don’t suffer unnecessarily, and helping them to understand your situation is the best way to do that.
However, this is not an easy challenge too often. Explaining your child that you are suffering from something they can’t comprehend so easily, especially at immature age, is not an easy task. So, the best way many parents cope with the situation is they turn a blind ear to their children’s questions.
In these cases, parents usually deny any of those feelings that their child notices and change the subject. This way, however, the child can get the wrong picture. They may think that it’s their fault that the parent is feeling sad, depressed, or stressed out.
This in turn causes irritability, feeling of rejection, and even hate toward something that the child cannot understand – especially if you become that something in physical manifestation. Being open about the problem should not skip the most important ones in your life – your children.
So, how to walk this thin string, where your child is neither frightened and worried about you, nor feels guilty and rejected?
Tracey Starr is a Canadian writer and editor, and mother to a five-year-old daughter. She is also a parent who deals with depression and anxiety daily, and she has some words to say about dealing with this delicate situation.
In a telephone interview with Global News, she revealed that she had been dealing with depression since she her teenage years in high school, and had been diagnosed with anxiety in her thirties. In other words, she knows this feeling all too well.
However, what she does differently from many parents is that she doesn’t leave her child out of the part of being open about her illness.
Depression and anxiety are things Starr talks to her child about. She doesn’t want her child to see them as a cause of weakness and vulnerability, but as things that require one to be a fighter.
“If she sees me sad, she’ll ask why I’m crying,” said Starr. “And I’ll say, ‘Sometimes it’s hard for mommy to relax and put a smile on my face but I’m doing my best like I ask for you to do your best.’”
And although she doesn’t use the word ‘depression’ explicitly, as she doesn’t want to frighten her child, she does explain to her in a narrative that she would understand.
Doctors agree that Starr’s method is one of the best ways to communicate the problem with a child. However, they also note that not all ages are right for such information.
When is the best time to share about your condition with your child?
Dr. Jillian Roberts, a registered child and adolescent psychologist, says that the age, the circumstances, and the maturity of the child should be taken into consideration when parents tell their children about their problems.
She notes some distinct factors that play an important role in deciding what and how much to tell your child about yourself.
The maturity and the circumstances of the child play the key role in deciding what to share with your child about your problem.
Roberts explains that “a mature child who doesn’t have any major stresses could handle more information than a child who is slow to develop when it comes to maturity, or going through a crisis of their own.”
The age of the child is another thing that dictates the amount of information you should share. The younger the child, the less you should tell them about what is happening to you. Roberts exemplifies that a child in preschool or younger wouldn’t often need to know the condition the parent is going through.
Roberts adds that he younger the child is, the less stress they should experience, so until they become older, you will need to surround yourself with as much support as you possibly can.
Most importantly, doctors point to some ways you can tell your child about your condition.
Before going there, Roberts notes a very important thing: whatever way you use of telling your child that you don’t feel well, you need to stress that it’s not their fault in any way, and explain that you are getting all help you can get.
Starr also reassures her child.
“I say, ‘Mommy loves you, mommy is fine. Mommy just needs a moment but everything will be ok,” said Starr. “I say that to make sure she knows everything will be ok; I need to be her example. I don’t want to frighten her — I want to educate her.”
You can tell your child the way Starr does, speak to your child about your feelings and telling them that you are coping with the situation – show them the strength in all of that.
Using an analogy of a physical illness is what Dr. Shimi Kang, an adult and youth psychiatrist, points as a great method to explain to your child about mental illness. For example, just like asthma can get worse in the wintertime, so you can feel better or worse during certain circumstances.
With older children, giving them some power and discussing with them about what they’ve noticed about you is another thing Kang points as a good approach.
Whatever the approach, Kang stresses out the fact that your role as a parent is to teach them all the time. If they don’t understand, you shouldn’t take it personally. “Just teach them. Just like math – teach them about it,” says Kang.
Dr. Oren Amitay, a Toronto-based registered psychologist, suggest another way of telling them is by comparing your situation to that of celebrities your child may idolize or look up to. Saying that ‘so and so’ has that problem too shows them that even powerful people can have such problems.
Amitay says this approach is a great way for parents to be a role model to their children. She also stresses that it’s important to always remind your child that your illness isn’t happening because of them and that there’s nothing wrong with them that causes you to feel that way.
Whatever approach you use to open up to your child, you should always be aware that a mental illness is just as important as any other physical illness. If you are suffering from depression or anxiety, know that you shouldn’t feel shame about it and getting support is important.