Depression can be hard to put into words, but when you are a parent with depression, it’s important to be able to explain what’s going on to your children. Preparing what you want to say and speaking specifically to your child’s needs will help make the conversation constructive.
If you are a parent living with depression, you have probably spent some time considering how you should talk to your child about your depression. You may be struggling with where to start and what to say. You might wonder if it’s better not to say anything at all, for fear they might be scared or burdened by the information.
Children are very perceptive, and are likely already aware of changes in your mood or behaviour even if you try to hide it. Not having a conversation with your child about what is causing these changes may lead them to come to their own conclusions, which could be frightening or incorrect. Having a conversation about your depression is important in helping them understand what is going on and why it is happening. Before you sit down with your child, here are a few tips to consider:
Tip 1: Think about What Your Child Needs
While others can offer you guidance on what kind of information may be good to share, you will know best how to help your child hear what you are telling them. For younger children, you will likely need to use examples that relate to their experiences to help them understand what you are explaining. You might say something like, “Remember how sad you felt when we left your toy at the park? Sometimes I feel like that, which is why I don’t smile or talk as much.”
For older kids, you can be more straightforward about what depression is, but will want to adjust the level of detail of what you share to their age and their maturity level. The aim of the conversation is not to confide, but to inform and open up space for important questions they may have.
It is also important to think about how your child absorbs information. Are they visual learners who may benefit from a pamphlet or a video clip on depression? Do they engage in conversation more easily when they are involved in another activity, like playing or making something? Do they need a space with few distractions in order to really focus? Try to set up an environment that will be most conducive to your child’s needs.
Tip 2: Think Through What You are Going to Share with Them
The key to explaining depression to your child is to keep it simple and honest. You may have a lot of thoughts swirling around in your head about what to say and how to say it, so here are a few important points that can be helpful in guiding your conversation:
Explain in basic terms what depression is
- Depression is a disorder that affects mood and behaviour
- Because depression affects the brain, it means that the brain works differently when someone is depressed than when they are not
- Depression is quite common, even though people don’t always talk about it
- Depression isn’t a weakness, but a difference in how the brain works
Go over some of the symptoms and effects of depression
- Depression impacts people in many different ways. It can make people feel tired, sad, irritated, or angry.
- Depression can cause people to cry, lose their patience easily, or feel extremely tired and want to spend more time sleeping or in bed
- It can also make people feel less confident, have trouble concentrating, or worry more
- Depression can make parents have less energy to play, talk or go places
- These symptoms can make kids feel confused or upset, and might make them wonder if they have done something wrong. It is important to remember that depression isn’t caused by another person
What causes depression
- There are many different things that can cause depression, and what may cause depression in one person might not in another
- In some cases, there can be a serious emergency or event that brings on the depression, but other times it may seem to come out of nowhere
- It is not a child’s fault that an adult has depression; the depression is not somehow related to or caused by them
What helps people with depression
- Depression is treatable and manageable
- Most people who are treated for depression get better
- Treatment can include things like talk therapy (talking with an adult who has experience and training in dealing with depression), medicine to help the brain work differently, and groups or activities designed to help people with depression manage their symptoms
- If depression is treated but comes back, it can be treated again
- Consider sharing aspects of your treatment plan to reassure your child that you’re getting the help that you need
Tip 3: Be Ready for Questions
“What does it feel like to be depressed?” “Can you get better?” “Am I going to be like you too?” “Does depression make you sick or die?” “But, WHY?” Kids typically have no shortage of questions around new information, particularly when it concerns someone they love. While some may not have many questions right away, it’s likely that after they have time to process what you’ve told them, they will come back with some later.
Older children may be aware of the link between depression and self-harm and suicide, and ask you about this aspect of the disorder. It is okay to reassure them that this does not affect everyone with depression, and if someone did feel that way then a doctor, therapist or other adult can help them to feel better.
Children may also ask if they will get depression. While some studies suggest that having a family member with depression can increase the risk of developing it, this is not confirmed, and many of the exact causes of depression are unknown. You can explain to them that while it’s not sure what will happen in the future, there are things they can do to help build healthy mental health practices that will benefit them as they grow up. This includes things like:
- Talking to people they love and trust if they feel sad, upset, or have a problem
- Getting enough exercise and sleep, and eating healthy food
- Knowing what types of activities make them feel better when they feel sad, upset or stressed
Your child may want to know if there is anything they can do to help you. This is a good time to reinforce that you are getting the help you need, but are glad to be able to let them know what is going on, and that you will do your best to answer their questions.
Tip 4: Get Treatment Before You Talk
Trying to have a conversation about depression when you’re in the midst of your symptoms can be incredibly difficult and may be unproductive. Seeking professional care not only improves your ability to manage your symptoms and focus, but also gives you more understanding and insights into your condition that can help inform what you share with your child. You may also want to ask your therapist for advice on how to start the discussion.
While talking to your children may feel difficult at first, opening up the conversation can make a significant difference in assuaging their fears about your wellbeing, and help them understand that they are not to blame for symptoms of depression.
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