If you are a parent who struggles with mental health concerns, you can trust that your children notice and are affected by your moods and behaviors. This is not something to feel badly about–it’s just part of being in a family. However, you can navigate the family dynamic in ways that make your children feel safe and loved despite the tensions at play.
Perhaps the most important tool you have is communication. When you are able to communicate honestly with your children in a way that is appropriate to their age and emotional capability, you set their minds at ease. You also show them that it’s okay to struggle with mental health and that they can feel safe talking with you when they’re feeling sad or upset.
But how do you know what to say and when? Let’s take a look.
Explaining Mental Illness
One easy way to explain the concept of mental illness to children is to compare it to physical illness. It’s normal for the body to get sick sometimes. We might get a cold or have a stomach ache that goes away pretty quickly with rest and maybe some medicine. But sometimes we get a sickness that lasts a long time, like the flu or pneumonia. In that case, it’s important to see a doctor and get treatment.
Just like our bodies can get sick, sometimes our minds get “sick.” We may feel worried or fearful or sad or angry. These emotions are normal, and most of the time we can feel better by talking to someone or getting a good night’s sleep. But sometimes the feelings get worse and last for more than a few days. In that case, it’s important to talk with a therapist (who is like a doctor for the mind) and get treatment.
Explaining Your Particular Disorder
For younger children, explaining the concept of mental illness might be enough to satisfy their curiosity. Older children will have questions. If they ask what is “wrong” with you, share with them the basics of your condition.
For example, if you suffer from depression, you can explain what depression feels like. Maybe it makes you tired or makes it hard for you to concentrate. Maybe it makes it hard to sleep. Maybe it makes you feel sad and angry most of the time.
If you suffer from an anxiety disorder, explain that you often feel scared about things even when there’s no reason to be afraid. You may also have difficulty paying attention to a person or a thing when you’re feeling anxious.
Consider that it might be very comforting for your children to learn that the sadness or anger or fearfulness you have is not because of anything that’s wrong in your life–it’s just because your brain needs help producing the chemicals that help you feel better.
Explaining Your Treatment
Describe what you’re doing to help yourself feel better. Maybe you’re taking medication to help your brain function properly. Maybe you’re meeting with a therapist regularly to talk about what makes you feel this way and how you can learn to think in a more accurate and positive way.
If you experience your illness in episodes, as with bipolar disorder, depression, or schizophrenia, explain to your children that even though you’re doing everything you can to help yourself get better, sometimes the illness gets especially strong and will affect your mood and your behavior.
Assuring Them It’s Not Their Fault
Tell your kids, as often as they need to hear it, that how you’re feeling and what symptoms you’re experiencing are not their fault. They didn’t cause the illness, and they can’t make it go away.
Remember: even though you suffer from a mental health disorder, you are still responsible for your behavior. If you have a bad day and yell at your children or ignore them or scare them with your behavior, apologize as soon as you’re able. Positive Parenting Solutions offers a helpful guide to apologizing to kids, including recognizing your child’s feelings and telling them how you plan to avoid repeating the same mistake in the future.
If you’re a single parent, make sure your children know another adult whom they can reach out to when they have questions or worries or just want to talk.
Having a Strong Support System
Make sure you meet regularly with your doctor, take your medication as prescribed, and work with a therapist and/or support group. Your children can be part of your support group as well.
Explain to them what you need to take care of yourself and how they can help. Maybe you need a good night’s sleep, which means your children should only wake you in an emergency. Or maybe you need to have quiet time to yourself every day, during which you’ll close the door to your bedroom or office and ask for no interruptions.
It’s easy to feel alone when you’re parenting, especially if you’re also struggling with a mental health disorder. Take some time to read about or talk with other parents who struggle with mental illness. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) has a blog in which people like mother Nicole Beeman-Cadwallader describe their experience and how they overcome their challenges.
Doing Your Best
Make the most of the times you’re feeling healthy. This doesn’t mean running yourself ragged in order to do everything for your family. It means consistently showing your love for your children: by asking them how they’re doing, listening to their stories, helping them with homework or projects, and giving them a sense of routine to help them feel secure.
Here at Eagle View Behavioral Health, in Bettendorf, IA, we pride ourselves on our compassionate, professional care for adolescents and adults who struggle with mental health disorders. Our continuum of care ensures our attention to each client from assessment to discharge and beyond. If you or a loved one need mental health care, contact us to learn more about how we can help.