How Parents Experiencing Mental Health Issues Can Talk to Their Kids About It

Talking to your kids about your mental health struggles may seem stressful. But experts say it's beneficial in the long run to the health of your family

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Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder are just a few of the mental health disorders that can affect us. If you've been diagnosed with any of these, you're not alone. Research shows that 1 in 5 American adults deal with a mental health disorder every year, and many of those are parents. A 2021 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Research Participation Programs, found that 1 in 14 children have caregivers with poor mental health.

While it may be your instinct to want to shelter your children from what you are going through, experts say there are many benefits to talking to your child about your own mental health struggles.

"Kids are extremely perceptive," says Dr. Neha Sharma, director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellowship Program at Tufts Medical Center. "They pick up on the tones and inflections and slight changes in our gestures, so you don't actually have to say anything in order for them to pick up on change."

Sharma explains that it can be extremely stressful to a child if there's a change in their environment and the kid doesn't understand the source of that change. "It's important to communicate to the kids if there's an episode of depression or anxiety that's going on, because they already know about it and are already being impacted by it," she explains.

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Opening up to your children about mental health challenges, she says, prevents kids from assuming that new parental behavior (such as a parent being more upset or withdrawn) was caused by something the child did.

"So instead of thinking 'Mom's not talking to me, or Dad's not talking to me, because I did something wrong,' they will be thinking 'Oh, Mom's not feeling well, or does not feeling well. And that's why they're not talking to me as much as they used to,'" says Dr. Sharma.

Children, by nature, crave the attention of their parents, Dr. Sharma says, and not receiving it can create low self-esteem, as well as behaviors like retreating, withdrawing and getting sad themselves. "It can also lead to behavioral problems, like yelling, screaming, acting out and not doing as well in school," she says.

Ultimately, she warns, keeping children in the dark about their parents' mental health struggles creates more distance between the parent and the child, and potentially can set a stage for the child to have their own mental health issues.

Here are a few expert-backed tips on how to tell your child that you may be undergoing a mental health challenge:

Ditch the stigma

Throw out the guilt. "We tend to feel guilty about our mental health issues, and that's the stigma talking," says Dr. Sharma. "And then the message we give our kids is that the stigma is real." By keeping the discussion under the rug, she says, you may be signaling that there is shame attached to the issue, and it's important that no one is shamed for experiencing a mental health issue.

"Talking to children about a specific mental health challenge can help destigmatize mental health struggles for your child as well, and provide them with a personalized perspective of how mental health can affect someone's day-to-day life," adds Dr. Ankur Desai, a behavioral health medical director at AmeriHealth Caritas.

Additionally, he says, being open about mental health struggles helps children develop a healthy, adaptive and holistic view of health and wellness.

Choose the right time of the day for you

"When everybody is calm, collected and having a good time, that's the time to talk about these things," says Sharma. For some people, that's during the bedtime routine; for others, it's over breakfast or on the drive home from soccer practice. "Children should be reminded that there is no question they cannot ask and that the dialogue will continue; it is not a 'one and done' conversation," says Reena B. Patel, a parenting and school psychologist and author of Winnie & Her Worries.

Set up a time to check in

Set up a time to check back in with your child. This gives you the chance to reiterate any main points from your initial conversation and clarify any questions they might have after thinking it over. "As parents, it's ok not to have all the answers," says Patel.

She reminds us that sometimes you need time to process how best to address your child's question, and that's okay. "You do want to let them know that you understand what they are asking and will look into it further and let them know what you find," she explains. And with older children, this may mean doing the research together.

You can also provide them additional resources for questions and support. "Talk to your child about who they can talk to … if they are feeling overwhelmed," says Tammy George, adjunct professor of social work at George Mason University and an executive board member of the mental health nonprofit This is My Brave.

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Open a book or turn on a show on the topic

"I've found that having something that sparks the conversation naturally can help – a TV show, film, podcast, play, book or news report that creates the space in which starting the conversation is organic," says Beth Murphy, founder of mental health documentary film and podcast series, OUR TURN TO TALK. Storytelling, she says, has the power to get others thinking and talking."

Sharma suggests the book The Rabbit Listened. "It's a wonderful book about grief, loss and challenges and how to overcome them," she says.

Make feelings a normal dialogue

"Feelings and mood and our wellness should be a constant conversation with our kids," says Sharma, who has been having these discussions with her four-year-old for several years.

"We've been talking about how your feelings affect your body and how your body affects your feelings," she shares. "That relationship of body and mind should be a constant conversation for everybody, just for them to be aware of how they're impacted, so they can feel more in control and more empowered about it."

Make it age appropriate

"Simple terms are easiest for younger children to understand," says Desai. He suggests emphasizing how mental health is just one aspect of a person's complete health picture.

"One great starting point for younger children is to say that a parent is seeking help to manage feelings and behaviors," adds George.

"With older children, start by having a conversation with an empathetic tone," says Jo Frost, a global parenting expert and star of Supernanny. "Be considerate, soft, and nurturing, identifying the symptoms without unhinging the child [AA2] as you talk about what you or they may be experiencing daily," she says.

Most importantly, Frost stresses, "You should remember that your child should not feel responsible for you." Instead, the point of the conversation is to help them understand why you might be lower energy or less available than usual.

"Children in upper grades of elementary school into high school can understand the concepts of being sad or nervous, and that these are human emotions that everyone experiences," says Desai, adding that you can explain that experiencing those emotions for long periods of time can impact your job as a parent and employee.

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Desai also suggests telling your kids that it helps to see a mental health professional in the same way you would see a medical professional when you have a fever, sore throat, or a sprained ankle.

Mitigate worries

Communicate actionable steps to your child, Desai says, to help them visualize how you will get better: "Explain to them that mental health conditions can be treated, and that there are a variety of well-trained providers and treatment options available to address all of these health concerns."

Some children may worry they may get the same illness, George explains, so "it is important to say that mental illness can happen to anyone, but just because a parent struggles with an issue, doesn't mean their children will."

Finally, "ask them to repeat what they heard and ask what they think about it," says Dr. Deborah Fernandez-Turner, interim chief psychiatric officer with Aetna. "Most importantly, listen to where your child is and how they feel."

Start somewhere

Experts agree: There is no perfect way to have these conversations, but just having them is key. "When I told my daughter about my mental health struggles, I saw a look of realization cross her face," says Murphy. "Being honest with my daughter showed her that I trust her, gave us a chance to talk about healthy and unhealthy coping skills, and deepened our relationship in a way that only honesty can. My only regret is that I didn't start having these conversations sooner."

These conversations help you to be a role model for your child. "The more you show them that it is okay not to be okay sometimes, the better prepared they will be to face their own mental health challenges head-on," says Fernandez-Turner, "and the more comfortable they will be speaking up and reaching out for help when they need it."

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Ask for help

If the conversation feels too heavy, Sharma suggests using as a resource, as it provides information about how to talk to family about mental health conditions.

"A therapist can be useful with language for parents to use and assist parents in coming to terms with their own anxieties," says Darby Fox, author of Rethinking Your Teenager and a child and adolescent family therapist. Ask your own therapist for advice, seek out a child psychologist or ask your pediatrician for a referral.

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