How I explained my mental health condition to my kids

Should I talk to my child about my mental illness?

Many parents who experience living with a mental health condition will often wonder if they should open up and talk to their children about mental illness. I know, because I was one of them. Perhaps you’re one of those parents as well.

I believe it is common for parents to question whether or not they should open up and discuss such a taboo subject to their little ones. They may view it as, “bad” or “wrong”. But, I’m here to tell you that it’s not. My first thought when deciding to open up about my condition was, “they are not going to view their mother as being a strong woman, they will see this “sickness” as a “weakness.” However, through recovery I learned that having an illness does not make us weak. In fact, managing and expressing our emotions or episodes in a healthy way makes us remarkably strong. I want my children to understand that. I want them to see my resiliency. So I decided to open up about my mental health condition.

Communication is the utmost important thing, and I find it extremely difficult to live with mild to severe symptoms around my kids and NOT tell them why or what is going on. Although, I believe it is not a bad thing to be open about our struggles, it is still very important to understand HOW to explain those struggles and condition to our children. I’ve always said, emotions are never bad or wrong, but how you express those emotions can be determined as good or bad. The same applies here. Our struggles are neither, right or wrong – good or bad, but how our children view our reactions to these struggles can be determined as good or bad.

If you are a parent, then you already know how curious little ones can be. They will continuously ask “Why?” until they feel they have the information they need – but sometimes it still doesn’t stop there. I admire curiosity and encourage my kids to always ask “Why?”, when it is appropriate, of course. With that said, I had to be mentally prepared for a million questions when opening up to my oldest child about my condition. Not only that, but be completely educated on the subject of my condition as well. Below I list an example of several questions my kids asked me when I opened up to them about my mood disorder, this may give some people an idea of what to expect.

The first thing I openly discuss with my children is our emotions. I truly believe that our emotions drive our behavior. It helps to explain these more complex topics to children when an example can be made that will relate to them. For example, there is a popular Disney movie that my kids love called Inside Out. This movie emphasizes our emotions and how our mind works at a level our children can understand. Therefore, I often reference scenes from the movie to help explain my situation a little better. I’m allowing myself to get on their level to help them better understand the minds like ours.

My oldest is nine years old. She also struggles with her emotions like I do. After discussing the importance of emotions and how it drives our behaviors, she brilliantly decided to come up with a code word for the both of us to use when we are struggling. I let her pick the word – “Congruent”. With the understanding that when this code word is said, we would stop what we are doing and take a deep breath. Collect our thoughts and emotions for a moment, then calmly discuss our feelings with one another before things escalate. For me, an example would be – receiving a triggering email from someone. Instead of having a breakdown or start screaming at my computer over it – I take a deep breath, look at my kids and simply explain the following: Mommy just received a rough email regarding something I need to work on and it has upset me a little. I am going to put my headphones in for a moment and take a few minutes to myself to collect my thoughts. This usually results with a response from my daughter, “Okay mommy, we’ve turned the TV down a bit so you can focus. It will be okay. I love you.” (Best.Kid.Ever, right?!)

The second thing I openly discuss with my children is the frequency and inconsistency of my mood swings and what I do to help myself through difficult times. My kids know that I attend therapy and take medications to help regulate my emotions, they may not understand the full extent of these things but they don’t need to at this age, in my opinion. With our code word in place, I explained that using the code word will help me tremendously, thus giving her the understanding that she plays a huge role in helping me feel better. I lightly discuss my coping skills such as putting my headphones in, listening to music, going for a walk, writing, or just having cuddles in bed with them. With this, they can see that I’m handling my intense emotions in a healthy way.

Inclusion is important. I want my kids to feel as though they are apart of something that I know will be helpful for them. After I openly discuss my mood disorder, I ask my kids if they have any questions. I encourage them to open up to me about what they are thinking and how they are feeling on the topic while reassuring them that they are in a safe space with no judgements. After answering any questions they may have for me, I turn the conversation around a bit and ask them what I, “Mommy”, can do for them when they are going through a tough time. This allows me to understand their needs as well. It goes both ways and it’s extremely important to understand that as a parent.

For me personally, I tried to answer their questions to the best of my ability. I think it’s important to not overload their brains with too much information regarding a complex subject. Here are a few questions my children asked me when I opened up to them about my mental health condition:

Questions

My personal responses
Why do you feel sad though? Sometimes I feel sad when I see something that brings up a bad memory. Or when someone says something that hurts my feelings.
Why are you not happy when you’re around us – don’t we cheer you up? You absolutely do cheer me up and make me very happy. Sometimes things on TV or my phone can put me in a bad mood and that doesn’t have anything to do with you. Spending time with you and cuddling up with you is very helpful for me.
What kind of things do you talk about in therapy? I talk about emotions, work, school and set some personal goals for myself. My therapist likes to help me achieve these goals.
Being alone is lonely, can’t we just all play together? Being alone and being lonely are two completely different things. I enjoy being alone. It helps me to collect my thoughts and think clearly. I rarely ever feel lonely. After I collect my thoughts, I would absolutely love to play a game together.
Do we stress you out? Being a parent has its stressful moments but in general, no – you do not stress me out. If anything, you help me in many ways you don’t ever realize.
Do I have a mental illness? I don’t believe so, no. Not everyone has a mental illness.
Should I go to therapy too? I don’t see the need for you to go, however if that’s something you would like to look into then I will fully support that decision.
Daddy gets sad sometimes, should he go to therapy too? Therapy doesn’t work for everyone. If daddy has a great support system (which it sounds like he does) then he may not want or need to go to therapy and that’s perfectly OK.
Is this a secret? Do other people know about this? It’s absolutely not a secret. The people I am closest with do know about my mood swings. I prefer to discuss it with people if it’s necessary but i’m not ashamed of the struggles I face.
Are you getting better? With my friends, family, support systems like therapy, and YOU – I am getting better.
Why do you have to take medicine for it? I don’t have to take medicine for it, but I choose to because it helps make my moods or emotions less intense. Medicine doesn’t make my emotions go away but they are just there to help keep me a little balanced.

Since explaining my mental health condition with my kids, I have noticed an increase in comfortability when discussing their emotions and feelings with me. I’m surprised by their new level of emotional intelligence and how well they are handling this condition I live with. Overall, it definitely brought us closer together as a family.

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