Hey sweet friends! Today on Exploring Neurodiversity and Mental Health, I wanted to talk to you about your older kids! Specifically how to talk to your older kids about their parents mental illness. In May, I’ve focused intently on Maternal Mental Health. Today’s post is within that umbrella though I am in no way trying to make is sound as though only mothers struggle with a mental illness. This one is for you dads out there too!
As you know if you’ve ever looked at my blog before, I value honesty and openness within the parent-child relationship. I am a firm believer that those traits are the only way we will raise mentally, emotionally, and spiritually healthy children. I’ve talked about discussing sex openly with your children before. Right now I am working on a post about talking about struggling with faith with your kids. Kids are kids, yes, and there are some topics that are less comfortable to talk with them about. But we must prepare them for this world.
Abstinence only education does not help our children. Same goes for an education that erases mental illness.
Talking about our own mental illnesses with our kids can seem daunting though. I still remember the day our oldest son asked me “So Lauren, why did you leave college?”
It was a hard conversation to have, but I wanted the truth to be out there. So I explained in understandable terms what happened and why I left. I not only empowered my personal experience with mental illness but in turn gave him the tools if he ever needed to talk about a mental illness to another.
Now that’s not to say it was easy. And I totally do not have all the answers on the best ways to do this. I however did want to share what worked for us and how to approach the topic with your kids.
Be aware of what your child can comprehend.
Children have different abilities at all ages and developmental steps. Each child is different. I’m not going to lecture you on what your child is able to understand because you are the person who knows them best. I can tell you this-what I tell my 21 year old about my mental health is very different from what I tell my seven year old. While I do not lie to either, nor do I tell it in niceties, my adult son is capable of comprehending what I am telling him much more clearly than my younger children.
Maybe you’re sitting there wondering “How do I know what they are able to understand?” That’s a hard question to answer. Our little Princess tends to be more in tune with things than most 8 year olds I know, but Monkey usually miss a lot more behaviors tied to mental health. Maybe your life looks similar to that. If you’re unsure what they are able to hear at this point, ask them questions. Let them ask questions. Gauge what they are retaining by having it be an ongoing conversation. Much like sex and their bodies, their comprehension will change with age.
It can’t be a once and done conversation. It’s okay to have it be continuous and morphing with each step.
When I first told Doodle I struggle with anxiety, I said it just like that. I was apologizing for checking her seat belt a third time before leaving. As she has matured, I have shared with her specific parts of my life that have caused my anxiety and why some of those anxieties at times feel projected onto her behaviors. I would venture to say that we have a much better relationship because she understands where I am coming from. While haven’t sat her down and had full out conversations about exactly what causes my PTSD, I have told her that’s what I struggle with and why.
I know this isn’t always the easiest conversation to have. To be completely authentic here, I didn’t even make this choice on my own. A trusted elder pushed me to do it and I took his word on it. Talking about it totally helped though.
Acknowledge the parts your kids can notice-they’re picking up more than you realize.
One of my biggest pet peeves as a parent is that I find we tend to assume our kids don’t notice anything. We pretend that we can hide things so well they will miss what’s really going on. That’s just false. Kids are so much more aware than we give them credit for.
You may think you’re behaviors are too small or your children are too young. This may not be true. Even the smallest thing sticks to our kids.
Let me tell you a little story. My mother hates when her food touches. Hates it. I watched as she put huge spaces between her food for most my life. For her this wasn’t a behavior due to OCD or an eating disorder-it was just how she liked to eat. But she never thought anyone else ever noticed or it effected us. My Mema doesn’t drink while she eats. Also not a behavior because of a mental illness, just a preference. They have both told our families this. Seemingly super small things that probably would never stay in the mind of a small child right?
But after years of watching these behaviors, my siblings and I know these as facts. I no longer even offer Mema water or milk with her meal and when I make a plate for my mama you bet your bottom nothing touches.
Yes, these have nothing to do with mental illness, but it is to serve as an reminder that even the smallest things we believe our kids don’t noticed are noticed by them.
Treat it like a REAL illness.
It is so easy to wave off mental illness. So, so easy. I catch myself doing it sometimes still. “Oh yeah, I mean I have anxiety but it’s not that big of a deal.”
Right now, in this moment, it doesn’t feel like that big of a deal to me. I have it mostly under control. And I understand trying to brush it off as not a big deal in general, with the hope as to not scare your kids. But as I mentioned above, they’re pretty intuitive. Most kids will only be afraid if there is a reason to be.
More important is what their lifelong reaction to mental illness will be. Mental illness is a real illness. Repeat that a few more times. We are taught to treat it differently than anything else because it’s all in our heads. This belief is so ingrained into our culture that even those of us who are advocates sometimes forget to treat our own mental health as kindly as our physical health.
We need to treat our kids that mental health matters.
Be okay with being uncomfortable.
Ladies and gents-we all hate to be uncomfortable. It’s just a fact of life. And some of these conversations may be really uncomfortable. They may bring up conversations you don’t know if you’re ready to have yet. Your child may ask questions you truly don’t want to answer. And that stinks.
I know it can be really hard to cross over some of those lines. We are all here struggling with different mental illnesses, so I can only speak generally and for myself. One really hard conversation I am not looking forward to having someday is when my children ask me where my scars came from. I dread it. I truly do. But the fact it will make me uncomfortable or may be a hard conversation to have doesn’t mean I can shy away from it. If anything the sensitive subject needs to be pushed even harder to talk about because it is such a raw and vulnerable area of my life.
And don’t forget- if all else fails, get help from a professional. There’s no shame in bringing your child with you to a therapist and having them assist you in explaining what’s going on with your mental health. Having a second person to help may further your child’s understanding.
Mamas, I know this is a hard topic to breech. Some of you may be thinking “Wow, thank GOD I only have an infant for now!”
While I know it can be a hard topic, it’s also such an important one.
As I said above, the way we speak to our children about mental health will shape the way they talk about it forever. If we are ashamed and embarrassed by our diagnoses, they will learn that. They will learn mental illness is something to be ashamed of. If we are open, they will learn the opposite. We empower them to speak about their own mental health. We will teach them that the stigma surrounding mental illness is outdated and silly.
When we talk about mental illness openly and freely, we will raise a generation of people who are empathetic. Who are compassionate. Who are educated.
So please, step outside your comfort level and share your mental illness with your children. Be open, be bold, and be freed.
It’s time to end the stigma, one little person at a time.
*Don’t forget next weeks EN&MH will happen on Tuesday, May 30th!!*