How to Talk to Children about Your Depression

Mother and  Daughter talking

Children are great at observing what goes on around them. They are also sensitive to change, particularly when the change impacts their household. A parent who previously was very involved in their day-to-day activities who suddenly has little energy for anything is a change that might unsettle a child.

When a parent is physically ill, there are generally obvious, visual manifestations. On the other hand, major depressive disorder might appear, to a child, to be a lack of interest or caring.

Younger Children

It is important to try to explain what is happening to you. Leaving children to their own interpretation, with their limited experience, might lead to unexpected and hurtful beliefs.

For young children, vocabulary can be an issue. They aren’t likely to understand words like “depression” or “mental health”. Keep the conversation to short, simple words that the child understands. Mental illness can be compared to a physical illness. A child who remembers being sick with the flu would understand the concept of having a sickness that made them feel bad, but that got better.

Talk about your symptoms in simple terms. Depression can make someone hurt inside, and that makes them cry. It doesn’t hurt in your head, but sometimes your muscles or your tummy hurt.

Be open to questions and explanations, but keep them simple. Going into a long-winded discussion of what your therapist has told you to expect is not going to help a young child understand what is going on. Simply assuring your child that you are seeing a doctor and taking medicine will convey to the child that you are making the effort to get better.

Be positive, but realistic. Don’t promise your children that everything is going to get back to normal in a few days. Tell them that sometimes it takes a long time to get better. Reinforce that, once you are better, you can go back to spending time with them.

Most importantly, make certain they understand that depression is something that just happens, that it is no way the child’s fault, and that you still love the child very much. Make certain that they know they can ask another adult for help if things get bad or if they have a need that the parent cannot meet.

Older Children and Teenagers

Older children have a better understanding of mental illness, but they might not understand clinical depression, and how it differs from simply feeling sad for a while. You can explain the difference, and give them some insight into how treatment works and how long it will take.

Teens might have some concerns that you could be contemplating suicide, but they might not feel comfortable asking the question directly. Don’t hesitate to reassure your children that you are not suicidal, if in fact you aren’t. If suicidal thoughts are an issue, then reassure your children that you have discussed them with your therapist and that, between you, you have them under control.

If your older child asks how they can help, you can ask for their patience and support. Let them know that this is sufficient, and that they are not responsible for maintaining the household or taking on other adult responsibilities.

Make sure that they know that they have access to another responsible adult (be specific), and that they are safe and loved.

Sources: PsychCentral.com , PBS.org and Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

 
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