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.

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