Hey guys! It’s Mental Health Awareness Week. This means that around the country, conversations are happening about mental illness, mental health, and what to do to get from one to the other. This is obviously great! As a society, we’re learning to talk to each other about the hard stuff. The stigma and silence that previously isolated those of us struggling is starting to shift.
Now, say what you want about social media, but I honestly feel that it’s played a major role in helping this movement. Yes, it has contributed to the increase in mental illness as well. Feeling that everyone else is doing better than you can definitely be a social media side effect! However, it’s also helped many people – myself included – feel brave enough to share their story. It’s a ripple effect. As we read other people’s struggles, we feel less alone – and in turn, gain the strength to share our own. However, even though we’re more comfortable sharing our struggles online with other adults, it’s often still hard to address these issues with our kids. How on earth do we talk about our mental health with our children?
Why this is difficult
In theory, it seems like it’d be easier to talk to our families about mental health issues than to complete strangers on the internet. But it isn’t. Especially to our kids. After all, we want our kids to believe we are strong! We are brave! We have everything under control!
We don’t want our kids to worry about us…
…and we don’t want our kids to worry about themselves.
We try to hide our imperfections from our children – after all, surely letting our kids know that we’re struggling would shatter their feelings of security? Their faith in us? Surely we don’t want to let our kids deal with our adult problems?
It’s OK to not be OK
Having a mental illness doesn’t make you a bad parent; nor does it make you a bad person. As the old saying goes, it’s OK to not be OK. Parenting can definitely be harder (even just logistically), but many parents who suffer from mental illness give absolutely everything they can to their kids. As long as your kids know you love them, and you take care of their basic needs, they’ll be OK! Just remember – you can have depression, anxiety, etc, and still be a good parent. Having extra support is a necessity, for everyone involved. You won’t be perfect all the time – no one is – but you can still be a good parent.
OK, so now that’s out of the way…
Kids + mental health
Here’s how I believe we can best help our kids when we have mental health struggles:
This will obviously depend on the age of your children, but try to be open and honest with them (to an age appropriate level) about your feelings. It’s OK to tell them if you’re feeling sad, frustrated, angry –
just be sure to let them know they are not responsible for your negative feelings. [Note: Discussing consequences of your children’s behaviour is different – i.e. “hitting Mummy makes her feel sad”. This helps them learn the implications of their actions.]
Stick to simple, clear & relevant information, and be prepared for them to ask questions. Explain how your mental health may affect your mood, actions or behaviour. Let them know it’s a reason but not an excuse. You might be surprised – children are often far more accepting of things than we think they’ll be!
It can be easy to get so caught up in our own struggles that we stop paying attention to how our behaviour is affecting our kids. Try to keep an eye on how they respond and interact with you, and pay close attention if they bring up any concerns with you. I notice this particularly with my eldest (11) – he catches on quickly when I’m having an off day, so I try to talk through with him that he hasn’t done anything wrong, Mum’s just having a rough day.
Ensure their needs are being met
Usually we take care of our kids’ needs before our own, however sometimes all we can manage is their basic needs; food, clothing, health. If we don’t have the capacity to take care of their deeper needs for a while, enlist the help from your partner, family member or close friend to do the “extra stuff” with them. Ask your partner to take over the one on one time for a while, or schedule regular bonding time with their aunt. Surround your kid with the people who love them – which will also give you a bit of a break to focus on getting yourself better.
Model good self care
This is a double benefit. It will help teach your kids to take care of their mental health, as well as helping you with yours! Having someone holding you accountable helps keep your self care consistent – even if they don’t know they’re your accountability partner.
A big one here that I believe is key is to show your kids it’s OK to ask for help if you need it. If nothing else, I want our kids to learn this. This might be the difference one day between really struggling with mental health and coping.
It’s key to show your kids it’s OK to ask for help if you need it.
Depending on their age, you can also discuss with your kids why you prioritise self care. This might also help keep them off your back while you’re having some quiet time! (No promises there though)
Ensure they have a safe person they can talk to
This is often a good idea even for parents without mental health issues. Most kids get to ages where they don’t want to talk to their parents about anything (because their parents are lame). I know I did!
So it can be really helpful to have another safe adult they can talk to about anything. Ensure this person knows the boundaries on what to keep between them and your kids (to respect their privacy), and what needs to be shared with you.
You got this!
This parenting gig isn’t easy. Especially when you’re struggling with your mental health as well. But we don’t need to hide this completely from our kids – in fact, it can actually help everyone involved to keep the dialogue open and honest. Children are incredibly resilient – far more so than we give them credit for. Authentically connecting with them by allowing them to see you as imperfect can help you both.