TALKING TO CHILDREN ABOUT OUR MENTAL ILLNESS
TALKING TO CHILDREN ABOUT OUR MENTAL ILLNESS
When I fell ill with depression and PTSD, it was quite dramatic for my 12 year old twin daughters. I went from being a full-time teacher and a sporty, active mum to crashing on the sofa and barely communicating for a number of months.
At the very start, they asked my husband what was wrong. Unsure about how open to be, his reply was: "Mum's really poorly at the moment. It’s not an illness you can see. What she needs from us is lots of love and patience." Looking back, I think this was a beautiful response at the height of a crisis.
We discussed it with our GP soon after who said: "They're old enough to understand. Answer every question they ask but don't tell them anything more. They know what they're ready to hear." It was excellent advice and I am so grateful to her for it.
Over a period of eighteen months, their questions included: Why do you find noise so annoying? Why can’t you go to work when you look fine? Why does your medication take so long to work? Can depression kill people? (after a family friend died by suicide). Why are you laughing in such a weird way? (side-effect when coming off medication).
They rarely came at a time when I expected them. It was never ‘Mum, can we talk?’ I’ve answered tough questions while driving (a favourite time to ask so they can avoid eye contact); during family card games; when trying to get everyone out of the house on time in the morning (that one needed a deep breath!); and when having a cuddle before bed. As they were not that frequent, I always made sure I gave them my full attention, answering them as honestly and in as much detail as I felt was appropriate for their age.
It’s not always been easy. I’ve been scared of exposing them to too much at a young age, of worrying them unnecessarily or making the situation worse. Reading this in Brené Brown’s ‘Rising Strong’ reassured me enormously and it’s a paragraph I often go back to if I need further reassurance. She wrote:
“When our children sense something is wrong…or when they know something is wrong…they quickly jump to filling in the missing pieces of the story. And because our well-being is directly tied to their sense of safety, fear sets in and often dictates the story. It’s important that we give them as much information as is appropriate for their developmental and emotional capacity, and that we provide a safe place for them to ask questions…More information means less fear-based story-making.”
Of course, when we are feeling vulnerable and uncertain, we might question our ability to judge what is appropriate and what isn’t. But that’s where my GP’s advice helped so much. I stuck to the rule: if they ask, I can answer. One of the trickiest conversations I had, came from a question that seemed quite simple to respond to at first but became quite emotional for both me and my daughter. In the middle of an intense week, while my husband was away for work and I was struggling to manage, she suddenly asked: “Mum, why were you so stressed out last night?”
As it didn’t feel like one of those ‘big question moments’, I almost dismissed it. Then I almost denied it (I hadn’t been that bad, surely?). Then I looked her in the eye and realised she needed an honest, open answer. So, in a calm manner, I told her. I was stressed. Stressed they'd taken forever to change after swimming. Stressed they'd been given crisps, chocolate and crisps at the pool when I'd made a healthy meal. Stressed that they argue about everything, seemingly all of the time (but are then best friends again two minutes later). Stressed because I was still learning to juggle being back at work with normal, every-day life challenges. And stressed because their Dad was away and I had to do it on my own.
She hugged me, apologising for the arguing and the endless chatting in the shower at the pool. But the conversation wasn’t about blame. It was about saying it as it was and also explaining how I managed it. The early night. The eye mask. "Yes, I noticed," she said. “You went to bed because you knew it would be better in the morning.” My heart skipped a beat as she said those words. It suddenly struck me how much they observe, how much they take in and also how much they are learning.
That’s a coping strategy right there that she has taken on board. My honesty meant she understood the reasons behind my need to crawl into bed early; she wouldn’t be making up those stories that Brené Brown warns us about; and, most importantly, next time she’s stressed she might just go to bed early and feel reassured that she’ll feel better in the morning (we know that’s not always the case but it can definitely work as a first-step coping strategy).
The following day, as we’d got interrupted by her sister, I asked her if I’d answered her question fully. To my surprise, she burst into tears. As we hugged, she said she felt so much better after she’d asked me but she’d been so scared that I would get cross that she almost hadn’t done it. It was one of those moments as a mum that stings…a lot. I was gutted that she felt that way. That it was so important to her to know what why I was stressed but that she’d been frightened to ask. Once I got over the sting, it reminded me that our GP had indeed set us on the right route all that time before but that we also needed to make it clear that questions could always be asked.
So, you see, being open with our children about our mental health struggles is not something we need to fear. In doing so, we can actually achieve so much good. I can now see that it meant we faced my illness as a family; my daughters understand how tough mental illness can be; but they can also see that with good medical care, time and love, recovery is possible (I'm much better now).
As I observe my mature and empathetic (when they want to be!) daughters now, I am certain some valuable life lessons have been learned. I am very grateful to the GP who set us on the right communication track with them and I am so pleased that we took her advice on board, despite how hard it has been at times.
WRITTEN BY @itreallyisok
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Women talking unashamedly about their mental health and parenting innit.