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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?
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.
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.
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.
‘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.’
‘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.’
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.
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.