Talking To Kids About Mental Illness

Hiding the truth about my diagnosis won’t convince my daughter that nothing is wrong, but it might make her hesitate to seek the support she needs.

My daughter is almost 2, and it turns out that’s old enough to be worried about me.

I cry often, especially when I’m in the throes of an anxiety attack. When she sees tears on my face she reaches out and says “Happened?” She pets my head to help me feel better. But she doesn’t want to come closer than arm’s length – she twists away when I try to pick her up, demands to be held by my partner. Some mornings, and it’s always the ones when I haven’t slept enough, when I’m tense and panicky, she clings to my partner’s legs when he tries to leave for work. The more anxious I am, the more she resists being left alone with me.

It wrings my heart dry, but I can’t fault her for it. When she pulls away, I let her have space and try not to take it personally. How can a child not be influenced by the lens through which her stay-at-home parent sees the world? If the person she spends most of her waking hours with is regularly suffused with absolute dread for no reason that can clearly be articulated, how can she avoid absorbing that fear, or identifying me as its source?

Research shows that communicating with children about a parent’s mental illness helps them develop the resilience they need to cope with it and maintain a strong relationship, but what does that look like in practice? My daughter is too young to understand what an anxiety diagnosis means, too young to understand that a person’s very experience of reality can be distorted by their own mind. She’s too young to understand that just because I’m crying doesn’t mean anything is objectively wrong. She’s just old enough to be scared because I am.

For parents with mental illness, keeping our children safe is paramount. We don’t want to scare them or overwhelm them with the truth about how ugly things can get inside our minds, and so the impulse may naturally be to hide it, downplay it, and keep it to ourselves. But kids are perceptive. They understand more than they can express, and far more than we wish they would; they pick up on our emotions, and telling them nothing is wrong when something clearly is only undermines their sense of stability. Open communication about the parent’s condition and how it affects the whole household is the best way to ameliorate the risks associated with having a mentally ill parent.

My friend Bella* was diagnosed with depression when her daughter was 6. When explaining her diagnosis, “I defined it for her and then gave an example, just as I would have done for introducing any new words.” She worked to present it as a part of life without conveying stigma or shame to her child.

Children of mentally ill parents are aware that stigma exists; they may fear that they or their parent will be judged harshly for their proximity to mental illness. Fear of revealing something deemed shameful about their parent can contribute to isolation and a lack of positive communication with outside adults about what they’re experiencing at home. Children need to feel that they have a support system beyond the mentally ill parent, and normalizing our conditions as much as possible is crucial to allowing them to do that. Hiding the truth about my diagnosis won’t convince my daughter that nothing is wrong, but it might make her hesitate to seek the support she needs.

As with any parental illness, children cope better when they’re informed. Shelby, a mother of two young boys, was diagnosed with depression two years ago. Even at 3 and 5 years old, her sons notice that she takes medication daily. She explains to them that “mommy’s brain sometimes makes her sad and angry when she doesn’t need to be. This medicine helps my brain not be sad and angry.” This not only helps to normalize and destigmatize her illness, it also contributes to her children’s understanding that depression is a medical issue that can be treated.

For older children, including them in conversations and decisions about parental treatment may be beneficial. Seeing a parent with mental illness make progress also contributes to a child’s resilience. Sarah, a mother with PTSD, OCD, and panic attacks, has brought her daughter to therapy with her, to introduce her to her therapist and demystify her treatment. As her daughter gets older and deals with anxiety of her own, Sarah passes on coping techniques she’s learned, saying “I try not to overwhelm her, so I usually wait until she asks, or if I think my issues will impact the family.” Since there may be genetic and inheritable components to mental illness, parents can take the opportunity to model a proactive approach to learning about and coping with their diagnosis.

Since before my daughter was born, I’ve been concerned about how to discuss my mental health with her, and I know I can’t put it off any longer. I still don’t know exactly the right things to say, but I can’t keep pretending that’s a good enough excuse not to say them. My daughter deserves to be informed about the mental illness that is a part of her life just as much as it’s a part of mine. It might be a long time – if ever – before I’m an emotionally healthy parent, but in the meantime I’m going to be the best, most honest, most supportive unwell parent I can be.

Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine,, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, a really cute baby, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).

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