'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.

Leah Menzies/TikTok

Leah Menzies had no idea her deceased mother was her boyfriend's kindergarten teacher.

When you start dating the love of your life, you want to share it with the people closest to you. Sadly, 18-year-old Leah Menzies couldn't do that. Her mother died when she was 7, so she would never have the chance to meet the young woman's boyfriend, Thomas McLeodd. But by a twist of fate, it turns out Thomas had already met Leah's mom when he was just 3 years old. Leah's mom was Thomas' kindergarten teacher.

The couple, who have been dating for seven months, made this realization during a visit to McCleodd's house. When Menzies went to meet his family for the first time, his mom (in true mom fashion) insisted on showing her a picture of him making a goofy face. When they brought out the picture, McLeodd recognized the face of his teacher as that of his girlfriend's mother.

Menzies posted about the realization moment on TikTok. "Me thinking my mum (who died when I was 7) will never meet my future boyfriend," she wrote on the video. The video shows her and McLeodd together, then flashes to the kindergarten class picture.

“He opens this album and then suddenly, he’s like, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God — over and over again,” Menzies told TODAY. “I couldn’t figure out why he was being so dramatic.”

Obviously, Menzies is taking great comfort in knowing that even though her mother is no longer here, they can still maintain a connection. I know how important it was for me to have my mom accept my partner, and there would definitely be something missing if she wasn't here to share in my joy. It's also really incredible to know that Menzies' mother had a hand in making McLeodd the person he is today, even if it was only a small part.

@speccylee

Found out through this photo in his photo album. A moment straight out of a movie 🥲

♬ iris - 🫶

“It’s incredible that that she knew him," Menzies said. "What gets me is that she was standing with my future boyfriend and she had no idea.”

Since he was only 3, McLeodd has no actual memory of Menzies' mother. But his own mother remembers her as “kind and really gentle.”

The TikTok has understandably gone viral and the comments are so sweet and positive.

"No the chills I got omggg."

"This is the cutest thing I have watched."

"It’s as if she remembered some significance about him and sent him to you. Love fate 😍✨"

In the caption of the video, she said that discovering the connection between her boyfriend and her mom was "straight out of a movie." And if you're into romantic comedies, you're definitely nodding along right now.

Menzies and McLeodd made a follow-up TikTok to address everyone's positive response to their initial video and it's just as sweet. The young couple sits together and addresses some of the questions they noticed pop up. People were confused that they kept saying McLeodd was in kindergarten but only 3 years old when he was in Menzies' mother's class. The couple is Australian and Menzies explained that it's the equivalent of American preschool.

They also clarified that although they went to high school together and kind of knew of the other's existence, they didn't really get to know each other until they started dating seven months ago. So no, they truly had no idea that her mother was his teacher. Menzies revealed that she "didn't actually know that my mum taught at kindergarten."

"I just knew she was a teacher," she explained.

She made him act out his reaction to seeing the photo, saying he was "speechless," and when she looked at the photo she started crying. McLeodd recognized her mother because of the pictures Menzies keeps in her room. Cue the "awws," because this is so cute, I'm kvelling.

Laverne Cox in 2016.

When kids are growing up they love to see themselves in the dolls and action figures. It adds a special little spark to a shopping trip when you hear your child say “it looks just like me.” The beaming smile and joy that exudes from their little faces in that moment is something parents cherish, and Mattel is one manufacturer that has been at the forefront of making that happen. It has created Barbies with freckles, afro puffs, wheelchairs, cochlear implants and more. The company has taken another step toward representation with its first transgender doll.

Laverne Cox, openly transgender Emmy award winning actor and LGBTQ activist, is celebrating her 50th birthday May 29, and Mattel is honoring her with her very own Barbie doll. The doll designed to represent Cox is donned in a red ball gown with a silver bodysuit. It also has accessories like high heels and jewelry to complete the look. Cox told Today, “It’s been a dream for years to work with Barbie to create my own doll.” She continued, “I can’t wait for fans to find my doll on shelves and have the opportunity to add a Barbie doll modeled after a transgender person to their collection.”

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Photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash

Actions speak far louder than words.

It never fails. After a tragic mass shooting, social media is filled with posts offering thoughts and prayers. Politicians give long-winded speeches on the chamber floor or at press conferences asking Americans to do the thing they’ve been repeatedly trained to do after tragedy: offer heartfelt thoughts and prayers. When no real solution or plan of action is put forth to stop these senseless incidents from occurring so frequently in a country that considers itself a world leader, one has to wonder when we will be honest with ourselves about that very intangible automatic phrase.

Comedian Anthony Jeselnik brilliantly summed up what "thoughts and prayers" truly mean. In a 1.5-minute clip, Jeselnik talks about victims' priorities being that of survival and not wondering if they’re trending at that moment. The crowd laughs as he mimics the actions of well-meaning social media users offering thoughts and prayers after another mass shooting. He goes on to explain how the act of performatively offering thoughts and prayers to victims and their families really pulls the focus onto the author of the social media post and away from the event. In the short clip he expertly expresses how being performative on social media doesn’t typically equate to action that will help victims or enact long-term change.

Of course, this isn’t to say that thoughts and prayers aren’t welcomed or shouldn’t be shared. According to Rabbi Jack Moline "prayer without action is just noise." In a world where mass shootings are so common that a video clip from 2015 is still relevant, it's clear that more than thoughts and prayers are needed. It's important to examine what you’re doing outside of offering thoughts and prayers on social media. In another several years, hopefully this video clip won’t be as relevant, but at this rate it’s hard to see it any differently.