Yes, they probably have seen us affected by our mental health issues but we cannot automatically expect them to have a mature understanding without some coaching. They will probably become hugely relieved to know that the moods or behaviour they have seen in us (or someone else in the family) have an explanation. The relief is even greater when they understand that mental health issues are like physical health problems in the sense that it is no-one’s fault: a person who is mentally unwell is not a bad person.
Relief also comes when they understand that they – the children – are not the cause of any of the trouble that may have happened. If they see us anxious, agitated or sad, or acting in some other ‘odd’ way, it is very typical for children to think that they may be to blame for it. Lift that worry from them.
School-age children can learn the name of your diagnosis (at least a simple term for it) and the words to use to describe your symptoms. They have a growing understanding of health, so you can talk to them about the things that help you stay healthy and the things that help you get better again when you do have a bad patch, for example medicines, therapy and lifestyle. You can talk about how you sometimes feel and behave when you are unwell: you might be amazed at how matter-of-factly children will treat this once they know what the real nature of the problem is. It is amazing how ‘strange’ home life can be and yet many children find it quite normal!
We may need to warn our children that not everyone has a correct understanding of mental health problems. They may be teased because of us. Tell them how much you understand the embarrassment and appreciate their loyalty. The people doing the teasing are wrong but they do not know they are wrong. If they knew the right information, they might not be so unkind. Assure children they may not be able to do anything about the teasing, but they can always talk to us about it.
You can mention that most things to do with health are private, including our issues with mental health, so instruct them to be careful about how they share your personal information with others. You can give them some phrases and terms they can share with friends if they do get curious questions. But it is important that they do have someone, apart from us, that they can talk to. If our mental health challenges worry them, they need to know that it is okay to call someone – a friend or Kids line: 0800 54 37 54 Youthline: 0800 376 633, text 234, email firstname.lastname@example.org, Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP) or Healthline – 0800 611 116. If the nature of our problem is that we have episodes of unwellness when we cannot care for our children they need to be reassured that there is a plan in place for their safe care.
It is good to debrief our children as things settle down again, to reconnect and reassure them. Even though you may have explained to them that it is not our fault that we sometimes act and feel in an odd way, we can express to them our sorrow that it may have impacted them or frightened them.
Something to encourage you: parents with mental health challenges can and do raise healthy, whole, happy children! Parenting is always a demanding job, even without the extra challenges from mental health issues, but if your kids know they are safe and loved, you already have your pass-mark as a parent, so hang in there!