How to Speak to Your Children About Your Own Mental Health Struggles

mental health

To my family and friends, I’ve always been pretty open about my own mental health struggles. Growing up, I may not have known what it was, but once I was diagnosed with OCD and anxiety in my early 20s, it all pretty much started making sense. And since that moment, I’ve truly had little to no shame talking about it.

But what about when it comes to speaking to my toddler daughter about my mental health? At what point in her life do I explain to her what, sometimes, happens in mommy’s brain and why I take the medicine that I do? Do I even have to talk to her about it? When? To what extent?

For the most part, I pride myself on having done “the right things.” Therapy? Check. Medication? Check. Researching and understanding ways to cope and handle flare-ups? Check. So there hasn’t been a lot of “out of the ordinary” things for her to experience or see because it’s under control.

 

At what point in her life do I explain to her what, sometimes, happens in mommy’s brain and why I take the medicine that I do? Do I even have to talk to her about it? When? To what extent?

 

But as she grows, she very well may pick up on some of my nuances or tendencies. If she’s anything like me, not much will get past her. And I’m not sure I want anything to. I’m a firm believer in being open and honest and always being her safe place to land. And to do that, I think at some point she will have to understand me a little more deeply. But I have no idea where or when to begin.

Sure, sometimes I stay awake at night wondering, praying that she won’t have inherited my struggles (Don’t we all?). And while I really can’t control that (thanks, genetics), I can control our conversations and openness about mental health within our home and family. I can aim to create an understanding, shame-free environment where mental health is just as openly discussed as physical health is and to cultivate a space where we can talk about all our feelings and experiences without judgement.

So to all the moms out there wondering how, when, or if to talk to their children about their own mental health struggles, I reached out to Dr. Adrian Oxman, licensed clinical psychologist, for her expert insight.

 

At what age should you start talking to your children about mental health in general?

From birth, babies experience emotions. So, Dr. Oxman said, it is “never too early to begin talking about them.” She explained, “In fact, I wish more parents would! Identifying and normalizing emotional reactions of babies and toddlers will have positive impacts throughout a child’s life. This can also serve as a building block to discuss mental health in general.”

Just be sure you are considering your child’s developmental stage and temperament, as every child is different and you know your child best. “Pay attention to their emotional state and proceed accordingly,” Dr. Oxman advised.

 

 

For preschoolers, Dr. Oxman said you’ll want to speak in a way they will understand while keeping discussions simple and high-level.

“Anyone who has ever had a toddler will know that they may not tell you how they feel, but they will express their feelings in a number of ‘big’ ways. This is great! Use these moments to verbalize and validate emotions.”

As for elementary-aged kids, this is the time they begin to have an understanding of their own and others’ emotions. Around this age is when they notice when someone is upset or angry and can empathize, so “continue the discussion around mental and emotional well-being,” Dr. Oxman explained. “You might start a conversation referencing a character in a book or movie they like. Inside Out, for example, deals with depression and other important emotions in an age-appropriate manner. “

By having conversations, both formal and informal, about mental health throughout your child’s life, it may be easier to continue the dialogue into the teen years. Just be sure you continue to approach the topic in a non-judgmental way.

 

By having conversations, both formal and informal, about mental health throughout your child’s life, it may be easier to continue the dialogue into the teen years. Just be sure you continue to approach the topic in a non-judgmental way.

 

“Most teens are familiar with issues like stress, anxiety, and self-esteem, but they may not know the difference between a bad day and a more serious mental health issue, which is why the most important aspect of talking to teens is to listen,” Dr. Oxman said.

Just remember that as the parent, your most important job is providing a safe and secure environment for your child. “Being too open with younger children or particularly sensitive children could cause a child to feel uncertain and anxious,” she warned. “You want to be honest and reassuring without disclosing inappropriate or unnecessary details.”

“Modeling good mental health hygiene is far more powerful than what you tell them,” she added.

 

Your personal situation

When it comes to your own personal situation as a parent with mental health struggles, young children do not need to know what your exact diagnosis is or what medication(s) you may be taking. “They simply need to know that you are not well, they have not caused you to feel unwell, and they do not need to worry because you actively working on feeling better,” Dr. Oxman said.

For teenagers, this conversation may be more revealing. 

“They may want to know more about your mental health, such as what your symptoms are, how you received your diagnosis, and what the prognosis is. Some teenagers might also worry about their propensity for developing a mental illness,” Dr. Oxman explained. 

If you are on medication, discussing it with your children is a way to normalize taking medicine for mental illness. “The way you address this topic will vary by age. With younger children, you can explain that you take medication to treat your illness just like your child takes Tylenol when they have a headache,” Dr. Oxman said. For teens, this conversation will look very different, but the concept remains the same.  

 

 

During these conversations (which should be an ongoing discussion), she advised to give them information about symptoms, your recovery, and the skills and strategies you find helpful to manage your illness. “Always encourage your child to ask questions or raise concerns whenever they want,” Dr. Oxman said. “If you are not feeling well enough to field questions when they are asked, you can let your teen know that you hear them and can make time for talking at a later point.”

Generally, it’s always better to be open and honest (while also being age appropriate) when discussing mental health, just like you would be about physical health. Dr. Oxman encouraged this as it can “help destigmatize mental health and encourage your child to speak to you about any concerns should they arise.”

 

Need help?

When speaking to your child about mental health issues, words matter. So you may want to plan out certain things you want to say, or want to avoid, before jumping right in. “A poor choice of words not only stigmatizes those with mental health issues, but it also trivializes serious mental health conditions,” Dr. Oxman advised.

So avoid using phrases that make light of mental health, like saying, “I’m so OCD” or “I can’t concentrate, I’m ADD.” Other things to avoid are calling things or people crazy, nuts, insane, etc.

If you’re struggling to navigate how to discuss your own mental health struggles with your children, there are resources available that can help. The National Alliance on Mental Health and Children of Parents with a Mental Illness are great places to start. But Dr. Oxman said your own mental health provider (like your therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist) will be able to offer you more personalized suggestions. “As parents, it’s important to think about what we say and be mindful about how our choice of words may affect our child’s perception of mental health.”

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