I recently read an article written by the father of a 13-year-old boy in which he stated this fact: “I struggle with how I can share my depression with my children in a meaningful way, especially with my oldest son.” That very sentence captured my attention quickly because it was something I too struggled with for a while.
When is the right time to talk to your children about your struggles with mental health disorders? When should you talk to them about their own mental health? Should you even mention it at all? Or is it better to wait until they ask? What should you say? How do you start the conversation?
While I am certainly not an expert and I do believe each and every situation is different, I wanted to share the things I have learned in two separate roles: One as a daughter of a man suffering from depression, and another as a mother suffering from the same condition.
From The Eyes Of A Child
I believe I was about 12 when I saw my dad taking a pistol out of our gun cabinet. It was a scene that will never be erased from my memory. I’m not sure to this day if he knows I saw him from my place in the hall, but I did. And I saw when my mom came into the room and said, “What are you doing?!” In a panicked tone.
I was still a kid. But I knew exactly what he was doing. He denied it verbally at the time but has since admitted that while he wasn’t sure, he was considering ending his life. Depression had been lying to him for almost a year telling him that he was unfit to be a husband and a father because he had been unable to provide financially due to a medical condition that seemed to be worsening.
Depression had told him that the reason no one was helping us with our bills or with our groceries was because of him. “If you were gone, your wife and daughter would be able to get help.” While it may sound a bit strange, depression can convince you of all kinds of crazy things. And my father, one of the best men I’ve ever known, truly believed it.
He loved us more than anything and because he loved us, he was considering ending his own life.
I was so taken aback that day than I tip-toed quietly back into my bedroom and sobbed, not knowing how my mom convinced him to put the gun back.
Living in Oblivion
No one had ever talked to me about my dad’s battles. I knew that since he had lost his job he had become a very unreasonable man. It was during that time that he told me he hated me, that he’d wished I had never been born, and that “I might dwell on the good things if there was a single good thing in my life.”
I took all of these things very personally. I truly believed that he meant every word of it. I hid from my father because I believed he hated me. My self-worth suffered because I was “not a good thing” in the eyes of the man who meant the world to me.
The once-close relationship I had with my father came crashing down around me. But I didn’t hate him. I hated me.
Not long after that, we went to a church we hadn’t been to for a long time and after the service, my dad stayed, with tears rolling down his face. The preacher came to talk to him and I felt unwelcome so I left.
I don’t recall anyone talking to me, but I learned through conversations I overheard that that pastor had told my dad that he thought he might be suffering from depression, and it might be a good idea to talk with his doctor.
The words meant nothing to me. They were never explained. So I just continued on with my life, hiding from my father as best as I could and occasionally trying to show him love, hoping maybe he would reciprocate. I didn’t understand that he honestly couldn’t love me back because of the stronghold the mental illness had on him.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned that my dad did go to the doctor with the intention of discussing his struggles, but was unable to muster the courage. Instead, he went home and wrote a letter that my mom sent to the office as a fax detailing the situation. He even agreed to take medication for his depression which gave him the strength to take on a part-time job. That was when I started seeing my real dad begin to emerge again.
Throughout all of my childhood, I was told that my father had overcome his struggles because he forced himself to work hard again. And while I do believe that was a part of it for sure, he wouldn’t have been able to do that without the help of the medical community. And I think someone should have told me that.
The Emotional Baggage of Not Knowing
I’ve already mentioned how my self-worth suffered because of my dad’s depression. I can’t help but wonder how much better I would have fared if my dad, my mom, or even that pastor would have wrapped their arms around me and said, “Daddy’s sick.”
Maybe instead of saying, “I’m not good enough to be loved,” I could have said, “He doesn’t really mean that. His brain is lying to him.”
Maybe instead of saying to myself, “I am a terrible person,” I could have learned to say, “This is a terrible disease.”
If someone had talked to me about my father’s mental illness, would I have opened up more readily about my own struggles and gotten help rather than turning to self-injury? If I had had a better understanding of depression, would I have had a healthier marriage? I think so.
Instead, mental health issues appeared to be taboo. They weren’t talked about. They were just swept under a rug, or even laughed at. For me, an oblivious pre-teen, it was no laughing matter. I followed suit on what I saw and tried to “pull myself up by my bootstraps” in silence. It didn’t work well, not at all.
From The Eyes of A Parent
I love my four little girls more than anything in the world! I can’t imagine them ever feeling like I did as a child. I don’t want them to ever have a reason to think, “Mommy doesn’t love me” or “I’m not good enough to make Mommy happy.”
I’ve read so many articles talking about “being strong for your kids” and I get it, I really do. But the fact is, as my kids got older I realized something: They aren’t stupid. Just like the day I stood silently in the hallway of my home, my kids see things I might not necessarily want them to.
They get up during the night when I think I’m all alone and hear me crying in emotional anguish. They notice the tears still left in my eyes when they walk into the room sometimes. They hear when the depression turns to anger and I snap for some insignificant reason. They know something’s wrong, just like I did.
I want to make sure that they don’t think that “something” is them. I want to make sure they know that it isn’t their fault that Mommy’s sad or upset. I want them to know that they are the most important things in the entire universe to me, that they are worthy of love, and acceptance and that they have the potential to be great human beings!
How I talk to my kids about mental illness
From infancy I, like most parents, talked to my babies about how much I loved them. In moments of stress when I was going on no sleep, or was just plain exhausted, I would even say things like, “I’m sorry Mommy seems stressed today. It’s not your fault. Mommy’s just being crazy today.”
As they gained an understanding of emotions, I talked to them more. My oldest was probably three when she spotted me crying and said, “Are you sad, Mommy?” And I nodded my head slowly. “Yes baby, I am.” “Why?” “Sometimes Mommy’s brain just makes me feel sad.” That answer was enough for her and off she went.
My second child around the age of three asked me, “Why do you have lines?” As she pointed to my self-harm scars. I patted her on the head and said simply, “Mommy’s brain used to be really sick and so that happened.” Again, this answer sufficed and off she went.
As they’ve gotten matured, so have our conversations. My seven year old has been told that I have a sickness called depression that makes my brain tell me lies about things. She also knows some of the things my brain lies about: that no one loves me, that I’ll never accomplish something, that everyone wishes I would just go away.
I’ve told her that I’m always trying to fight the sickness and that I know those things aren’t true, and anytime I start to believe those lies and say or do something because of it, I am sorry. She knows that I don’t mean the things I say when my depression is strong.
We’ve even talked about how some things help and some things make my depression worse. For example, taking my vitamins and supplements daily is important, as is getting my quiet time every day.
I have never, however, blamed her or her sisters, for my poor mental health. I have made it very clear that they are some of the best things that EVER happened to me and that they are my delight.
To Charles Minguez from The Good Men Project
To answer your question, “When should you talk?” The answer is right now. Your 13-year-old son needs to understand why you have struggled the way that you have. He needs to know that there’s nothing “wrong” with mental illness. He needs to understand your struggles aren’t his fault. And he needs to understand that it’s okay to talk about mental health.
I can almost guarantee you he or at least some of his friends have suffered from some of the same emotions that you and I have dealt with at that age. Let’s empower this next generation to handle it better. Let’s show them that they don’t need to turn to alcohol, drugs, or self-harm. Show them there is hope, and that hope starts with a conversation.
I do, however, want to caution you that you don’t need to reveal everything. Use caution and wisdom. Don’t overwhelm your children with your weaknesses because going too far that direction has dire consequences as well as Amelie Bridgewater wrote about recently.
Instead, just take it one step at a time. Let him know he is loved and accepted and that he doesn’t need to make the mistakes that you made, but that even if he does make a mistake, he can come to you and you will help him navigate through them and ensure he learns to take proper care of his mental health, just like his physical health.