'Mommy is sad'—5 ways to explain your mental illness to your children
Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

Parenting is a tough and often thankless job, but it's particularly difficult for the millions of Americans living with mental illness. After all, when you're a parent you rarely get down time or "self-care" time. Life moves forward, no matter how you feel or your mood, and that means that—if you live with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder—your children will see you in good times and bad.

I have an anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder. My daughter has heard me scream and cry. My 21-month-old has wiped (literal) tears from my eyes.

And while our instincts tell us we should shield our loved ones from these moments—when my children see me break beneath the weight of depression, I am ashamed and guilt-ridden and my inability to suppress my emotions makes me feel worse—I've used these experiences (and my diagnosis) to shed light on an important conversation, one surrounding mental health.

I tell my daughter, "Today is hard. Mommy is sad." We talk about why. She is seven and knows Mommy is sick, and sometimes Mommy's illness affects her mood. She knows sometimes that means Mommy is fatigued, lacking the energy to play or get off the couch. She knows my disease—like a sore throat or cold—does not have necessarily have an identifiable "cause." And she knows my illness is not her fault.

There are numerous ways to approach a conversation about mental illness and mental health with children, and your method will vary depending on your child's age, personal maturity, and comprehension. However, according to psychologists, initiating the dialogue is imperative, especially if you and/or an immediate family member live with mental illness.


"We can and should talk to children about mental illness and mental health, even before they understand what that means," Dawn Friedman, a licensed counselor in Columbus, Ohio, tells Upworthy. "In fact, discussing it before they truly understand will help us practice for when they will have questions."

Here are five ways to explain mental illness, according to the experts.

Name the condition.

"It is important to talk to children about mental health conditions to help demystify uncertainty and confusion, clarify misconceptions, and promote understanding that mental health conditions are real and treatable," Mayra Mendez, a licensed psychologist and the program coordinator at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California, tells Upworthy. However, the "how" may seem overwhelming. Choosing the right words can be tough. But the best way to talk about mental illness is to discuss it openly and honestly. You can and should name your condition.

"The best language is the language that feels right to you, but I do think it's important to use the actual words when appropriate," Friedman says.

Explain you can't catch it.

Once you've told your child about your illness and/or mental illness in general, it's imperative you explain to them how mental health conditions occur. You don't want to scare your little one and cause them undue worry, anxiety, or fear. Let your child know mental illnesses cannot be contracted or spread. You cannot catch sadness, anxiety, OCD, or PTSD.

Make it clear your children didn't cause it.

It's important for children to know they're not the reason you feel the way you do. Mommy may be sad, but my kids are not the cause — and I tell them that, over and over again. Why? Because "children need to know that mental illness is not anybody's fault and that needing to take care of our mental health is normal and appropriate," Friedman says. They also need to know you love them, no matter what. Your mental state cannot and will not change that fact.

Keep things simple.

While it's important to name your illness and explain it, you don't want to overdo it. Getting too clinical or giving too much detail can be confusing. Instead, keep things clear, concise, and simple. It may be helpful, for example, to make a comparison to a physical illness. To explain your depression or anxiety as you would a stomach ache, headache, or sore throat. Focus on what is tangible and what can be seen (crying, yelling, excessive sleeping, changes to the daily routine) and use personal examples.

"If a parent has OCD, for example, and is struggling with rituals, they can explain what's happening. They can say, 'Mommy has a mental illness that makes it hard for her to get out the door when she can't do things in the right order, but it's not your fault that Mommy is feeling stuck right now,'" Friedman says. You also can—and should—answer questions as they arise.

"It is important for parents to understand their conditions [enough] to impart basic information to support understanding and reinforce hope in the knowledge that mental illness is treatable and manageable," Mendez adds.

Explain what you're doing to help and take care of yourself.

Once you've told your child about your illness, you'll want to let them know what you're doing to treat it, i.e., it is imperative they know how you're caring for yourself. Do you go to therapy? Take medication? Work out? Tell them. Knowing there is help and hope demystifies your condition. It also will alleviate their concerns and fears.

"Most of us will have times where we will struggle with our mental health. However, parents can and should discuss the things we do to take good care of ourselves," Friedman says, "as these discussions will normalize your condition and put them at ease."

As for me—a mother with anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder—I tell my children how I am feeling, when I am feeling it. I explain Mommy has an illness and sometimes that illness makes her nervous or irritable. Sometimes, Mommy is sad. When my daughter plays doctor, I let her treat my illness, just as she would a cold or sore throat. I thank her for the check up and "medicine." I let her know that with her help, and a proper diagnosis, I'm doing better. I'm feeling okay. And I regularly name my emotions. I make her do the same.

Talking about mental illness is the only way to normalize it and destigmatize it. To make it a conversation about health. To make it a conversation not about sickness but about wellness.

Does that mean our discussions are perfect? No. I stumble and flounder. I (constantly) make mistakes. Plus, in many ways, mental illness is invisible and that makes talking about it hard. I feel like I'm explaining an invisible ink game to my daughter but we've lost the pen. The page remains blank. There are no instructions. No outlines. No pictures. But I'm trying. I'm really trying, and initiating the conversation is half the battle.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

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"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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