Telling the kids

Last week I had a mail from a reader wondering about how/when to talk to his kids about depression. It's something I've thought about a lot, and haven't come up with an answer, rather, all I have is what we've done. I put the question out on facebook, and got some really interesting responses. For those who aren't on facebook, I've transcribed some of those responses below:

I talk to my kids about it in the hope that it normalizes it for them. I would tell them if I had diabetes or something else. There are 4 of them, they are 11, 9, 6 and 4. The older 2 understand and I imagine the younger two will as they get older (again not unlike other illnesses, they can articulate that I (or other people have it) without necessarily actually understanding exactly what it entails) - Sam

Tough call. Important to tell them but also appropriate to wait til they can understand. They need to be children for as long as possible - Roisín

As a child growing up with a mom with depression (and the diagnosis borderline - but that's another and longer story) I can only say that kids pick up much more than you realize and it is only a good thing to talk about it with them. Of cause it has to be in relation to their age, but kids do somehow pick up that there's something 'wrong'. It will also on the longer run become something where it is not a tabu to talk about mental health. - Puk

As a daughter of a father with physical and mental health conditions, I feel its important not to let children fill their own knowledge gaps. Like when the birds and the bees chats come along, be there and answer their questions as they come. At every age, children can perceive when someone is unwell, whether physically or emotionally. Also children are mostly curious so even when you think they're not in ear shot, they are. They may not even have questions yet...and then again they may always have questions. Also they may not even ask you directly and talk to other people they trust in their circle (and don't be offended by that, just be happy they're looking to others and not keeping it inside). - Catherine

Agree with children being children for as long as is possible, they grow up to fast , I can now talk to mine as they are old enough to understand, bide your time x - Audrey

I have 3 boys, 14, 11 and 8. I told them that I was feeling very sad lots and when I went to counselling I would tell them that I was going to talk to someone to help me be happy again. I also told them that it was ok and this happens to lots of people. I guess 3 years ago when I found out they were younger, but ages and stages I would tell them, depending on my situation and mood/emotion at the time. I just explained things simply for them when I was feeling under the weather, emotional etc, mainly telling them about my feelings at the time and that it wasn't their fault, mainly it was my brain and i needed medication to help level out my brain and that the emotions they will pass. Try to remain positive and keep in general conversation........................don't make it something they don't want to talk about, and don't hide it from them. - Lisha

Remember to make it clear it's not their fault and they did nothing to cause it in any way. Damn concrete/magical self-centred thinkers they are, they'll wriggle into being in some way at fault. Equally it's not their job to mind you (something I grew up with) but they don't need to make it any worse. Adjust as age appropriate. - Áine

When they are old enough to understand that's what I did - Mags

As you can see, I'm lucky to have some very insighful people reading this blog! I think it's safe to say that the general consensus is to tell them, but with provisos. Use age appropriate language. Tell them as much as they need to understand, but don't overburden them with detail. Try and make sure they know that it's not their fault - they didn't make us unhappy, nor is it their problem to make us happy. Kids are so insightful, and so in tune with emotion. They know from a look, or a tone of voice when something is wrong. Prime example - last Saturday after my moment of panic, I was walking and carrying my daughter. She looked at me, rubbed my face, and said 'Mommy, are you going to cry?' I wasn't, but that almost set me off!! My son in particular really tries to take care of me. When I first realised this I found it really upsetting. I never, ever wanted them to feel responsible in any way for any of this, either that they may have caused it or need to fix it. But, he's a sensitive soul, and like a sponge when it comes to emotion, so I think it was inevitable that he was going to pick up on something. Now that I know this, I can work on helping him realise that I'm not his responsibility.

For us, the biggest thing that we do is just try and make it ok to express emotion, whatever that may be. If they're angry, we let them be angry, get it out of their systems, and then try and find a way to make it better for themselves. My son loves to draw, so we get him to draw the angry, then he crumples it up and throws it away. If that's not a runner, we tell him to go up to his room and chill out by himself until he feels better - read a book, whatever it is he needs to do. We don't frame it as a punishment, rather that he needs some time by himself to calm down. Similarly if they're upset, it's ok to cry, for both of them. I think there's still a very big attitude of 'boys don't cry' around, and that's so damaging. If emotion isn't expressed it turns inwards, and then where can it go? We're big fans of cuddles, lots and lots of cuddles. We tell them we love them a lot. I try and tell them when I'm not ok, that I'm feeling a bit sad. When I'm going to see Therapist, I tell them that I'm going to talk to my friend for a while, and that she helps me feel better. I think that if I want them to feel able to talk to me, then I have to model not hiding emotion. Maybe by telling them when I'm not ok, it will help them to know that they can tell me when they're not. Lofty aspiration? I hope not. 

For the most part, we just muddle through. I don't know if we're doing the right thing, if we should be telling them more, or maybe less. But I don't want to pretend that something they can plainly see isn't real, or isn't there. All that will do is confuse them, and maybe encourage them to believe that there's something wrong with showing emotion, or else that they are to blame.  I want them to feel loved, and safe, and secure. Most of the time I can do that, but it's harder when I'm feeling low. Those I the times I need to do it more.

But do you know what's wonderful?? My son drew this for me.

When I look at this, I don't see fear, or misunderstanding, or insecurity. I see two big happy heads. He said the love hearts between us are his love going to me. I'm going to take it that the hearts on my hands are love going from me to him. He knows how much I love him, he really knows. I'm doing something right!

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