Author Note: This article is part of a collection from the previously lost Bordering Bears website, and has thus been re-uploaded and archived.
It can be difficult to know how, and when, to broach a discussion on your mental health with your children. Some may be concerned that their child will be frightened about their parent’s health if told, while others may worry that the child isn’t old enough to fully understand what they are being told.
In our family, we use age-appropriate honesty. I believe this works well to allow Feena to understand some of my emotions and behaviour, while still not giving her full disclosure into some of the less child-friendly aspects.
Ultimately, you are the best judge of your child. You know them well, including what they can handle.
Mature discussions such as these can be judged in the same way you may judge if a movie or show is suitable for your child. Determine whether or not it is something they will understand. Acknowledge that it may be difficult for them to hear. Consider what you will say before you broach the subject.
I’ve included some of the ways I have explained things to Feena, as well as other discussions we have had relating to mental health.
I have been discussing my mental health with Feena since she was small. She understands that people have a range of emotions and can show a great deal of empathy because of it.
When she was younger, I simply told her that “Mummy gets sad sometimes because of a bad thing in her head”.
This initially opened up conversation and made sure that she knew that there was a problem from a young age. To me, this was important as I didn’t want her worrying about it due to a lack of prior knowledge.
We keep things simple. She knows I have “mental health” problems. She understands some peoples brains work differently.
When asked what my conditions are (BPD & Anxiety), she can’t tell me. That’s okay in my eyes. She’s 8.
She knows that sometimes Mama feels sad and negative, just wanting to stay in bed and not do a great deal.
She also knows that sometimes Mama gets scared for no reason, and will breathe funny and feel dizzy.
She also knows it’s not to do with her and doesn’t panic, because we have discussed this. She knows how to help, as you’ll see below, and that it will pass.
Children are inquisitive by nature. Expect a lot of questions from them. Feena wanted to know why my brain was broken.
We used this as time to reassure her that I wasn’t hurt, that I don’t need to go to the Doctor, that it’s common, and that I’ll be fine.
Use It As a Learning Opportunity
My BPD stemmed from severe childhood bullying, so I used these discussions as learning opportunity for Feena. We discussed bullying at length, and she knows that if it wasn’t for some unsavoury characters there is a chance I wouldn’t have this.
Overall, it taught her that childhood bullying someone can affect a person’s life permanently, so she should never partake in it, or stand by and let someone else be bullied.
I have put together a few questions for Feena regarding discussing mental health with children, so you can also gauge her opinion.
What is mental health?
Mental means in your head. Health means that you’re healthy and strong. That means that your head is healthy.
What is a mental health condition?
It’s where something is wrong in your head. That means your head is not healthy.
What does Mama have?
Well, basically, what my Mama has is a mental health condition. Something to do with her mind where the bullies have been bullying her. So that’s caused all the problems in her head. So she sometimes gets snappy, she sometimes gets sad, and sometimes doesn’t understand things. So that’s what’s wrong with her head. All to do with the bullies.
How do you help when Mama is sad?
I hug her and stroke her head and tell her it’s okay when she has a mental breakdown. And other times I say “take a deep breath” and it works for her.
Can you tell me what anxiety is?
Anxiety… is where you are really really sad and sometimes you can’t breathe. You feel scared.
How do you help when Mama is anxious?
I help you by reassuring you, saying “it’s okay” over and over again until you believe it.
Do you think parents should talk to their children about their mental health?
Yes and no. Yes, because they’ll understand when you get scared or sad at that time. No, because they might make fun of it, which is not very kind, or they won’t understand it.
Are you glad that you know?
Yes, because then I can help when you’re scared and understand it a bit.
As you can see, Feena doesn’t understand the ins and outs, nor should she at her age. She knows enough to understand that I have a problem and how she can assist if she sees it.
Mostly, I try to keep it from her, but we are all human and sometimes hiding emotion isn’t possible.
If you want to broach a conversation with your child, it could be worth discussing it with their school, GP, children’s centre, or other professional first.