Nearly 20 years later, I still remember the struggle of growing up with a parent who had depression.
As a child, I didn’t understand what my mother was going through. I remember her seeking treatment and asking my dad where she was. At the time, he told me she was dealing with “women problems,” and I took that to mean any number of things.
When I asked my dad about it recently, he admitted that he had no idea what to say and was afraid I wouldn’t understand or might have more questions he couldn’t answer. He thought that giving a generic answer would end the discussion ― and it did ― but it also ended any further exploration of the topic with my parents.
Currently, more than 20 percent of children are living with at least one parent who has depression, according to Erica Messer, a pediatric psychologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in Ohio.
And with 1 in 5 American adults suffering from any kind of mental illness, it’s likely that many more children live in homes where it’s important to have a conversation about mental health.
How To Have A Productive Discussion About Mental Health
A lack of proper information and severe stigma around mental illness have historically made it difficult for families to have productive conversations about it.
But experts are now encouraging parents to push past the barriers and discuss depression and other mental health issues with their children. Depression can affect the entire family, including children, and conversing frequently about the changes and how everyone is feeling is an important part of recovery.
Here are some ways to plan and carry out the discussion:
Don’t wait until a child is older to bring up the topic.
Even if you have very young children who are still developing language skills, it’s important to prepare to have conversations with them about mental illness.
“Depression has an effect on children even as young as infants,” Messer said. “Parents who are depressed aren’t engaging with their children often or are unable to soothe their children. When they’re depressed, it’s harder to get out of bed or speak ‘motherese’ to the child.”
If you’re co-parenting, talk to your partner about what you want to say.
It’s best to present a united front, according to Abigail Schlesinger, medical director of the Outpatient Behavioral Health and Child and Family Counseling Center at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. It’s critical for both parents to be on the same page in terms of what they plan to speak about.
Realize that your child may already know something is wrong.
Children are extremely perceptive, Schlesinger points out, and will begin to notice if a parent is feeling irritable or unable to play with them. Parents should try to spend as much time with their children as they can and ask the other parent to help or provide additional support when needed.
Reassure your child that mental health issues are no one’s fault.
“In elementary school, it’s likely your child will start asking questions about what’s wrong,” Schlesinger said. “Make sure to connect the word ‘depression’ to your conversations.”
“They may not understand entirely what you’re talking about, but it’s important to take the blame from the person and place it on the condition, she added. “Make sure the child knows it’s not Mommy or Daddy’s fault that they’re feeling this way.”
It’s OK if you don’t have all the answers.
If you’re unsure how to respond to a question, it’s OK to tell your child that you don’t know the answer but will get back to them, Schlesinger said. Children often ask questions because they want to make sure everyone is doing their best and that the family is OK.
Above all, take steps to eliminate stigma around mental health.
Messer reminds parents that conversations should reflect that mental illness is an illness just like any other. Talk with younger children about how it can affect the brain. Parents should help remove the stigma and taboos surrounding mental illness by being open, she explained.
Attempting to have conversations with children when they’re younger will help keep the mental health discussion going as the child grows older ― and that can have a positive outcome for years to come.
This piece was originally published on ‘HUFFPOST’, October 10, 2017.