It's common for parents to want to avoid talking about their innermost struggles with their children. You don't want to scare them or have them worry about your well-being. But, as your kids get older, there's also probably a part of you that senses they understand what's happening, even if they haven't said anything outright.
In most cases, even if you don't yet know how to talk about mental health, it's best to be honest with your child. Kids are deeply astute and observant of the world around them. Adults don't necessarily give them enough credit for their high levels of intelligence. Your child can sense when your mood shifts or mental health issues are present.
Here are some strategies to prepare yourself and start a conversation.
Consider the Timing and Intention
It's ideal to talk about your mental health when things feel steady and calm. When you're in a state of crisis or juggling other obligations, emotions are high, and you might be at a greater risk of saying or doing something impulsively.
Try to choose a suitable time when you can have a face-to-face conversation with your child. It may feel scary to open up, but you'll likely feel relieved after the discussion. Nothing needs to be explicitly formal- you might even decide to talk about what's going on while you're driving your child to school.
But it's helpful to have some kind of plan in place. You may even want to practice what you're going to say in advance.
Be Simple, Direct, and Allow for Questions
If you have a mental health condition, it might be best to simply label it for what it is to your child. That means using the appropriate terms like depression, anxiety, or whatever conditions apply. Basics are best- you don't need to use complex language or overwhelm them with too much detail.
When explaining these mental health conditions, younger kids respond well to simple phrases like, "Sometimes I have really sad feelings, and when I do, I'm not my usual self," or "I get really worried some days, and it's hard for me to calm myself down." Emphasize that mental health issues are common and can affect anyone. Let them know that people can seek help and still live meaningful, fulfilling lives.
If your child has questions, aim to be transparent with your responses. The more you can convey that you're willing to be honest, the more comfortable your children will feel. Anxiety often worsens when a child senses they're being lied to or condescended.
Older children may be more receptive to learning about your mental health. You talking about your mental health may encourage them to open up more about their feelings or needs. Remember that this likely won't be a one-time conversation.
Talk About How You're Working On Your Mental Health
Parental mental illness is serious, and untreated symptoms can rupture the family's stability and affect how well you care for your children. And while it's not your fault you have a mental health issue, you are responsible for managing your recovery.
Make it a point to talk regularly about how you cope with emotions and overcome your hardships. This can sound like normalizing going to therapy or showing your kids how you breathe deeply when you feel stressed. Explain that you are looking after yourself as best you can.
If you're really struggling with acute mental health issues, consider enlisting other family members to help you with your children. You may need extra support at this time, and that's okay.
Consider Family Therapy
Family therapy can offer a safe and supportive environment for everyone to voice their opinions and state their relational needs. This can be particularly important if you're struggling to feel comfortable opening up.
Mental health problems can affect entire family systems. For example, it's not uncommon for a family member to enable another family member's problematic symptoms. It's also typical for people to feel resentful, disappointed, or frustrated with one another.
A skilled mental health professional can navigate complex family dynamics and provide both resources and emotional support in their work.
Validate Their Fears and Reactions
The most important thing a parent can do when talking to a friend or family member is acknowledge the other person's emotions and hold space for them. Your child may feel anxious or sad about the situation, and those are entirely normal reactions. Dismissing their reactions will often cause more problems, both for them and for you.
Validating phrases can sound like:
"I know this might be really hard for you."
"No matter how you feel, I am always here if you want to talk."
"I love you, and we will get through this tough time together."
"I can totally understand why you feel that way."
"What can I do to support you right now?"
When you validate, you aim to truly listen and deeply empathize with someone else's experiences. Rather than focus on your needs, you attune to what they need for support.
How We Help Families Talk About Mental Health
At Resurface Group, we don't shy away from tough conversations or mental health challenges. We understand that parenting can be hard, and we work to empower family members to support one another.
We are here for you or your loved ones. You are not alone in your mental health struggles, and our comprehensive treatment provides guidance, tools, and a recovery plan suited to your needs.
Contact us today to learn more.