How do I talk to my child about my depression?

When Michael was diagnosed with depression at the age of 38, his first thought, he says, was about his children.

“The boys were 10, 8 and 7 at the time,” he shares. “I thought, that’s so young – how am I going to talk to them about such a serious mental health disorder? How do I explain the terms? How would I even begin the conversation?

“But my wife said to me, ‘Honey, they’ve watched you in and out of your dark places all their lives.’ By being open with them, we thought we could help them make sense of my behavior, why I would act the way I acted sometimes, why I would retreat or why their mom did so much stuff alone when I seemed physically okay.

“Actually, talking to them about what I was going through helped me understand myself a little more too.”

When we have depression, our young children don’t often realize we have a mental illness – all they see is an adult they love seem to fade into the background, snap unjustifiably, or cry for reasons they don’t know or understand.

If you have depression and are trying to find the best ways to talk to your children about it, read on.

1. Understand your own condition. Before even beginning to talk to your kids about what you’re going through, try to prepare the answers to the questions they’ll likely have in a language they’ll understand. Let them know how you feel sometimes, and that it’s not their fault. Comfort them that you’re seeking treatment or finding ways to feel better and healthier.

2. Make them comfortable. You know your kids better than anyone. If you have a young child who fidgets uncomfortably when you’re having serious conversations, try chatting with them while they’re playing and can find comfort in a toy in case they get worried or scared. Some kids respond well to pictures; others understand best when explanations are done through stories.

3. Ease their fears. When we talk to our kids about our illnesses, often, our kids get scared. They’ll start to ask, “Are you going to get better?” or “Is this forever?” Let them know you’re seeking treatment and you’re on the road to recovery.

4. Ask for help. These can be scary conversations, for you and for them. If you’re not up to having the conversation on your own, ask your therapist if you can invite your children into a session, where they can ask all the questions they like. If, when you head home, they have further concerns, it could be beneficial for them to have their own sessions too.

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