At dinner tonight my kids were joking about various things and my younger child started joking about being in the “mental health room” and the “mental health unit” and basically laughing about people being crazy.
I felt frozen. I’m a social justice warrior parent and I’ve been quick to call in, correct, and stop my kids around issues like racism and oppression. But I was tired today and I wasn’t sure how to broach the subject that I’ve been a patient in mental health hospitals. My older daughter knows about some things from my past. They both have seen my scars and know that I used to self harm. My older daughter knows a bit more, she was more aware of my depression before I left her father. But they don’t know even a fraction of the story. I wondered today about what they will think of me when I tell them.
I wanted to jump into the conversation with “it’s not polite to joke about people with mental health problems.” But that didn’t seem like enough and I was so tempted just to honestly say: “I’ve been in mental health hospitals and it’s not something funny to joke and tease about.” I wasn’t ready for the conversation and they were happy and I didn’t want to add stress to the evening.
But now, hours later, I’m thinking about it. What will I tell my kids about my past? When will I tell them? Will it be planned, or will it spill out one day in a situation like this one? I don’t want to talk too much about things that might upset them, but I also don’t want them to feel like mental illness is a taboo or a stigma that people should be ashamed of.
How do we talk to children about mental illness? Before my first child was born I downloaded a fact sheet from CAMH called “talking to children about mental illness.” I told myself that I had a few years, until she was 2 at least, to fully recover. I told myself that she would never know and that I’d be 100% better by the time she was old enough to be aware.
I was optimistic. But even when I downloaded the fact sheet, I think a part of me realized that it wouldn’t be that simple. Anorexia, depression, anxiety and PTSD weren’t going to disappear the moment my new baby was born. It made me (and makes me) so sad to think about talking to my children about my mental health struggles.
The fact sheet suggested reassuring the child that they were not responsible for my health. Reassuring the child that I was seeking my own help and talking to other adults about my issues. In this way, she would not feel responsible for me or worry about my health.
I struggled with postpartum depression after both my kids were born. My older child was impacted more severely because she lived through both episodes. I struggled to cope with taking care of my toddler after my second baby was born. I hated myself for it and I still struggle to forgive myself for how I felt during the postpartum depression after my second baby. By the time my older one was 5-7 years old, I was again coping with depression due to the abuse in my marriage.
My child was bright and extremely emotionally aware and emotionally intelligent. I knew she worried about me and it broke my heart. I knew she was aware that I was not happy. When she was about 6, I read her some books from the public library which explained depression to children. I told her the words from the fact sheet: “I love you, I talk to my doctor and my friends when I am sad, you aren’t responsible and it’s not your fault.” But it was difficult and I felt like a horrible mother.
My eldest was 18 months old when she first noticed my scars. She was sitting on the potty and she looked at my arms and said “draw, draw?” She thought they were marker marks on my arms. I told her they were just marks and not to worry. I knew I was only buying time until she would ask again.
When my eldest was 7, I separated from her father. My mood improved and we no longer talked about depression. But over the next year she started to ask me incessantly about my scars. For a year I told her that I would “explain when you are older,” but after a time it wasn’t enough. She began to cry at night, get angry at me and say that I didn’t trust her enough to tell her. She started refusing to talk to me about her problems because I wouldn’t explain the scars. I spoke to my doctor and together we came up with a plan of how I could talk to my daughter. He said that the fighting was likely more damaging to our relationship than just telling her an age appropriate version of the truth.
So I told her. I told my 8 year old child about my past self harm. I told her that all the scars were due to me injuring myself. It was very difficult for me and I had a lot of guilt. I told her a version of the truth. I told her that when I was younger someone was mean to me and not respecting me and that I never told anyone. I told her that sometimes when you keep secrets like that inside you start to cope in bad ways like hurting yourself. I explained to her that this is why I always encourage her to talk to an adult about her problems. My daughter was sad. She told me that self harming was a very bad decision and that I should have talked to someone. She asked me such a wise question: “If someone was hurting you, why did you hurt yourself?”
Since I told her, the questions stopped. Once in a while I notice her looking at my scars with a sad expression, sometimes when I read to her at night she touches them and looks wistful. I hope that my honesty will allow her to make choices to help herself in her own life and not turn to such negative coping. My younger child still thinks the scars are cool, like battle wounds that make me funky and unique and a warrior of sorts. She knows on some level that they are from self harm, but I’m not sure she is ready to accept that and she doesn’t ask questions.
I don’t think that talking to an 8 year old child about self harm is ideal. But what options do I have? My scars are obviously visible and it’s impossible to deny them or hide them. If I had another type of physical disability I would have to explain that to my children.
Why is it so difficult to have open and honest conversations about mental health and mental illness?
I would like to tell my children that joking about the “mental hospital” isn’t funny. I would like to tell them that it is triggering for me and could be upsetting for other people as well. I want them to know that there is no shame in asking for help and getting treatment for a mental illness. I do want them to know some aspects of my story when they are a bit older. I want them to know because I made a lot of mistakes, and I hope that the knowledge I’ve gained on this journey could help them avoid the same mistakes. I also want them to be the kind of people who help others rather than judging them or putting them down.
I want to shatter the stigma. But today I was tired, my kids were happy and I didn’t want to put a shadow over a good day. The conversation that started at 18 months old with an innocent “draw, draw” is likely one that will be taking place in stages as they grow up. My psychiatric survivorship story IS my life, it is a part of me, and because of my scars I can’t hide it, even if I did want to.
And maybe one day I won’t feel ashamed and embarrassed to talk about it.
One thought on “Talking to kids about mental illness”
Hey :). I know it must be really difficult for you as you’re worrying about your children being intolerant towards people who have had mental health difficulties, and therefore, you. But I genuinely don’t think they meant any harm by saying that tonight-and perhaps didn’t quite understand the weight of their words? I think at that age, kids can tend to just repeat things they’ve heard on TV, or in the playground, you know? I think a lot of it is just experimenting with ideas and trying to make sense of the world around them.
I don’t think you need to worry about them not being totally accepting of you in the future. It sounds like your little girl is a very sweet and perceptive soul-which might make her a bit inquisitive.
It must be hard for you to talk about scars with your children. But in some ways, at least it’s enabled you to have healthy conversations with them about mental health from an early age, and that’s not a bad thing at all. You’re clearly very responsible and love your children an incredible amount!
As for your scars-please don’t feel bad about them. I’ve learnt to accept and appreciate my scars, and it’s a great feeling. They’re just a sign that you’ve lived. Nothing more, nothing less. And anyone who doesn’t understand that probably doesn’t have an awful lot to offer you in life anyway. As well, having your scars on show is a huge sign of self confidence-which is a very attractive quality in itself!x