Dealing with depression is a struggle. You may not know why you feel the way you do or have any idea how to change it. And chances are the idea of trying to effectively explain how you feel to anyone, let alone your child, seems overwhelming. But, if you’re a parent struggling with depression you will eventually need to find a way to help your child understand what’s going on.
Mental health has received a lot of attention recently. From the media to the schools there’s been a big push to remove the stigma from mental health issues and open up a conversation. While that’s a very good thing overall, the recent campaigns may still leave you wondering what you should say and how you should say it to your son or daughter – especially when it applies to you.
So, how does a parent explain their depression to their child without alarming, worrying, or scaring them? And what does a child see when a parent is depressed? Let’s take a look.
Effects of parental depression on a child.
Before we talk about how to explain depression to your child, it’s important to understand the effects a parent’s depression can have on their child.
No matter how well you think you’re hiding your condition from your child, I promise you aren’t doing it as well as you think. That’s not a criticism. Understandably when you’re suffering from depression every attempt at normalcy and behaving in an upbeat and positive manner can be a battle. It’s inevitable that those who love you and are closest to you will notice that there’s something going on and be affected by it.
Children are especially intuitive when it comes to changes in their parent’s moods and outlook. And while they may not be able to grasp what’s going on, they will react to it, and sometimes in surprising ways.
Often children of parents with depression display troublesome behavior themselves. This isn’t necessarily because they are depressed or troubled too, but rather an attempt to get a reaction and emotional response from their parents. They may act out in school or at home in ways that get attention and force the adults around them to respond. In other words, they try to force their parents – particularly the one who’s depressed – into parenting.
Depression can cause a person to withdraw from things and people they love. It can also cause anger issues and reactions to situations that can be out of proportion, especially in men.
There are many other behaviors that are symptomatic of depression as well, but the overriding commonalities are sadness and lack of enthusiasm. In a parent, this can mean being less involved with your children and less attentive. Your child will notice this, especially when they contrast that with the way other adults interact with them. Your child’s interpretation of your behavior may be that you don’t love them as much, or that they are somehow unworthy of your attention and affection. And for those reasons they can look for extreme ways to get attention, even if it’s negative.
Depression isn’t contagious but children of depressed parents are also prone to developing depression themselves. While there is a genetic component, it may also be due to a lack of a positive emotional parent-child connection during crucial developmental periods. For your child’s health and your own, it’s not only important to be able to talk to them about depression, but also to seek help and support for yourself as well.
How to discuss your depression with your child.
Talking about personal issues, especially health problems, with anyone can be difficult. But talking to your child about them can feel daunting. You may be concerned that it will be too much for them, or too scary. The truth is that the unanswered questions they have, and their limited perception of things can be far scarier.
Try using the following tips for having a meaningful and appropriate conversation with your child about your depression.
Although you can probably think through what seems like a reasonable conversation in your head, once you actually start talking to your child things can get derailed and confusing very quickly. Preparing ahead of time by researching age-appropriate information, making notes, and anticipating what their questions and concerns might be will help you get through things smoothly and with the most success. Overall, keep it simple. Your goal should be an acknowledgement, not a detailed explanation.
Find the right time, not just a convenient time.
Timing for a conversation like this is crucial. Your child deserves your full attention and you need theirs. You also don’t want them to associate this conversation with anything punitive or with their own behavior and interpret things as being their fault. So, when you are ready to talk ensure there are no distractions, that it’s not on the heels of reprimanding them, and that you are able to be as focused as possible.
Balance your approach.
Yes, this a serious conversation, but it doesn’t need to be frightening. You’ll need to balance practical and matter of fact with thoughtful and concerned. Remember, you’re modeling through the delivery of this information the way in which you want them to receive it.
Have a clear and understandable explanation for what depression is and how it feels.
This will need to be altered according to your child’s age and level of understanding, as well as your personal experience of it. The research you do as you prepare can help with the explanation but describing how it feels to you will need to be something that comes from your heart.
Discuss your efforts to get better.
Children may not understand why you can’t just take a spoonful of medicine and get better. After all, that’s often what happens when they’re sick. Understanding the difference between a mental illness and a physical one can be difficult for children. They do need to know that you’re doing your best to get better, however, and that it may take a little longer than they’re used to for that to happen.
No fault and no guilt.
Children have a way of interpreting problems their parents are experiencing as somehow being their fault. They can also suffer feelings of guilt when they find themselves wishing you were feeling different didn’t depression. Not only will you need to reassure them during this conversation that those things aren’t true, but you will probably have to remind them of that again and again as time goes on.
Your child may have a variety of questions throughout your conversation. Then again, they may ask nothing. There’s no way to prepare for every single thing a child may ask, just do your best to exercise patience and remain calm as you talk. It may be a good idea to have this conversation as a family as well. If your partner is understanding and supportive, having them present during your talk can take the pressure off you to answer everything.
There’s nothing easy about suffering from depression under any circumstances. When you suffer from depression as a parent, however, it’s a double-edged sword. You not only have the immeasurable love of and for your children, but the extra responsibility of parenting while trying to heal. Try yourself to remember each day that taking care of you is a large part of taking care of your family.