Why We Talk Openly About Mental Illness with our Kids

Monday, November 4, 2019

If you can, I want to encourage you to talk to your kids about mental illness.

In 2012, I fell into a dark and devastating depression.

I had struggled with my mental health since adolescence, but this time it was undeniable.  It affected every area of our lives.  I stopped functioning.  A good friend, wise and bold, pulled me aside one day and said, “You have to tell your oldest daughters what is going on.”  She was right.

My two oldest kids were 6 and 5. We made it age appropriate for them.  “Mommy’s brain is sick.” and “Sometimes I get sad or angry or tired and it’s not your fault.”  I let them ask questions and I answered them the best I could.  “No, I don’t know when I will get better.”  and “Yes, that’s why I’ve been going to the doctor more.”  We cried together, mourning together the chaos this sickness had brought to our lives. And then you know what happened?  They skipped off to play, lighter and freer than ever.  Talking to my children about mental illness lifted a weight from their tiny hearts.

We talk about mental illness in our home. We talk about therapy and medication.  We talk about my diagnoses and we acknowledge when things are rough.   We don’t share every detail with the kids, but we answer their questions and encourage them to talk to other safe adults in their lives about their feelings about my illnesses.  And I am so glad we do.

Here are 4 reasons why we talk to our kids about mental illness:

1. We talk to our kids about mental illness so that they will know it’s not their fault.  

It’s almost as if a visible weight lifted from their tiny shoulders the day I explained my illness to my kids.   They know that my moods are not a reflection of them, that they are not responsible for making sure mommy is feeling okay.   They are free to be kids.

2. We talk to our kids about mental illness so that they can talk to other safe adults in their life about it.  

My children have shared openly with their teachers at school and their friends’ moms about my illness and how it affects them.  They are free to share about their fears and hurts and frustrations in a healthy way.  Talking about mental illness gives them the words to process what is going on at home.

3. We talk to our kids about mental illness to reduce the shame and stigma.  

When we brush things under the rug and refuse to speak of them, we attach a shame to them, a “we don’t talk about these things” sort of stigma.  We give them so much power by refusing to speak of them.

 We have a saying in our home that “secrets keep us sick.”   By bringing my mental illnesses into the light, we send out that beacon that it is okay to discuss these things.   It is okay to not be okay.

4. We talk to our kids about mental illness because they may face these things one day.  

As much as I hope they won’t, my kids could struggle with mental illness one day.  And I want them to know that it’s okay to talk about it, it’s okay to call it by name and to seek help.  I want them to access the services they need and seek support.  And I need to model that for them.

I want my kids to know that in whatever they face, we talk about these things.  There is nothing you can’t discuss with those you love, that mental illness and addiction aren’t shameful things we need to keep hidden, but very real sicknesses that require attention and help.  I want my kids to know that there is no shame in needing help.  I want to raise compassionate world changers who step boldly into difficult things and know that it’s okay to discuss the things that break our hearts.

Mental illness affects the whole family.

 And as much as we may try to shield our kids from our struggles, they know.  They see and feel when something is wrong.  Giving my kids the words to process what is happening at home has been powerful and freeing for all of us.   Mommy’s brain is sick.  And that’s okay.

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