Living with a mental illness can feel like you’re hanging off the ledge of a skyscraper, barely hanging on by your fingertips. Even still, you have to go through the (sometimes overwhelming) motions of getting out of bed, putting on clothes, and going to work. But what if you have children? What do you do when you have a family to nurture, and you’re having trouble caring about anything at all?
Go Easy on Yourself
Yeah, right! Easier said than done. First, know that every parent on earth worries at one time or another about whether or not they are doing the right thing for their kids. We all fear that we might have said or done the wrong thing and, as a result, we’ve messed up our children for life. It is not necessarily your depression that is whispering those doubts into your ear; it may very well be the same voice everyone hears from time to time.
However, if your worries go beyond the regular, ‘I’m the world’s worst parent’ feelings, then it could be your depression. Remember, the most important thing any parent can do for a child is to love them and care for them deeply. So, the chances are good that you’re already doing the most critical part.
Guilt is neither necessary or productive. Try and accept those times when you can’t get dressed and walk your kids to school. These brief, albeit discouraging, moments will pass. And, at some point shortly, you will be back walking them to school, and you can then make that time special.
Enough with the Brave Face
Don’t hide your depression from your children. Your mental illness is common, so there’s no need to be embarrassed. By hiding your condition, you’re telling your children that depression is something shameful that people should endure in secret. You’re teaching your kids, if they are feeling this way, to hide those feelings and put on a mask for the world.
Your little ones will absorb the stigma into their personalities, and if they have a mental illness when they grow up, your children will emulate you and ‘put on a brave face’ instead of speaking about how they feel. Please don’t teach them this kind of emotional practice.
Also, when your child notices that something is upsetting you, they will worry they did something wrong and internalize that worry. So, by not speaking with your children about your illness, you leave them in a vacuum of information. They will eventually fill that void with all kinds of (false) fears and theories. You don’t want them facing life that way.
Speak to your Children
Speaking with your children about your illness is best done at a time when you’re feeling stronger. Attempting to talk to anybody (about anything) may be overwhelming when you’re mid-crisis, so leave the sharing until you’re more robust.
You can talk with kids of almost any age about depression. Just be sure to use age-appropriate language and examples to which they can relate.
Toddlers and Pre-schoolers
‘Do you know sometimes you have a sore tummy for no real reason? Sometimes mommy feels sad for no reason. Nobody did anything wrong and upset me. I just have a sad feeling. When I feel sad like this, I might not give as many kisses and cuddles as I usually do, but I still love you.’
Five-Year-Olds to Pre-Teens
‘Sometimes moms and dads get a sad feeling, and this big sad feeling can make you very tired. This feeling isn’t because somebody has upset them, or made them sad. Like when the rainy weather arrives, even if you don’t want it. When I have my big sad feeling, I just want to stay in bed and sleep. I still want to spend time with you because I love you. What do you think we can do together when I am very tired and have a big sad feeling?’
‘You may know that depression makes you feel down, but it also affects the way you think and how you act. Lots of people have depression, but not everyone feels comfortable talking about it because some people incorrectly see it as a weakness. It isn’t. Sometimes, it is caused by life experiences and events, and sometimes it’s just a randomly occurring disorder; the same as any other illness that can happen arbitrarily.
I will always try to be here for you, and when I am not, it is only because the depression is disrupting my thoughts and feelings, and not because I don’t genuinely care. When I’m in a healthier place, I want you to tell me about the times I haven’t been available to you so that we can work through them together.’
You want your children to know that:
- Depression is an illness that affects how you think, feel, and act.
- When you’re feeling depressed, you might act differently, use a stern tone of voice, or say things that you wouldn’t usually say.
- Nothing your child has done has caused the depression. It’s not their fault.
- Your child can’t fix your depression, and he or she is not responsible for making you better.
- You’re taking steps to make yourself better.
- Sometimes you might be unavailable, but it doesn’t mean you love them any less.
- Depression can cause all sorts of symptoms (discuss your personal experience with depression).
- Sometimes it goes away and doesn’t come back, other times it can keep coming back.
- Your child’s feelings about the situation are important, and they should be able to share them with you when you’re better equipped to discuss them.
If you suffer from recurring episodes of depression, planning ahead can be a fantastic way to help maintain your relationship with your children, and alleviate the guilt you might feel about your decreased ability to parent. Using coping strategies takes an enormous amount of stress off of your shoulders and makes things more manageable for the rest of the family.
- When you are in a healthier place, stock-up the freezer and cupboards with meals and snacks that are quick and easy to prepare. You will prevent a situation where your child is home from school and hungry, and you don’t have the capacity to plan or make a meal.
- When your children are old enough, teach them how to prepare basic foods and how to use the microwave, even if supervised. You would be surprised how much less stress it is just sitting on a stool in the kitchen and watching your child heat something up.
- Warning: Don’t use food as a bribe for your children to leave you alone because this can set them up for an unhealthy emotional relationship with food later in life.
- Always stay on top of your laundry. If you descend into a dark mental place with an empty laundry basket, you have wiggle room before you need to start worrying about the kids going to school in dirty clothes.
- If possible have a few sets of new underwear and t-shirts hidden away, they can be invaluable for when you can’t get out of bed, and nobody has clean socks.
- Teach someone else in the house to do the laundry. I learned this when I had a severe episode, and my husband took over the chore. In fact, he was so much better at it than I am, he does all the laundry now.
- Talk to your children about what you can do together when you are suffering. Make a list together and keep it somewhere safe, that way you will not have to think about it while you are depressed.
- Things like:
- Watching a movie, curled up on your bed.
- Have your child read to you from their favorite book.
- Keep a folder of fun apps on your phone or tablet and allow your little one to enjoy it while you sit with them.
- Going for a gentle walk, a bike ride, or a light run together.
- Things like:
Basic Parental Responsibilities
- Prepare a list of adults who would be able to help when you are unable to do the school run, take the kids to extracurricular activities, etc.
- Share your list with your children. Sit down with your kids and your ‘designated adults’ and talk about who will pick them up from school, take them to soccer, etc.
A Final Note to Parents
Just like the pre-flight emergency instructions tell you on the airplane: Put on your oxygen mask first. When you’re experiencing a mental illness episode, it’s essential to take care of yourself first, before you can take care of your loved ones.
Remember, an open, honest approach to depression will help your children now, and throughout the rest of their lives.
Here at Sad Runner, we have a community of parents, strengthened by their shared experiences. Join them in our Facebook group.
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