“How I Explain My Depression in Ways My Kids Can Understand” originally appeared on Gumnasia and The Fatherly Forum, and was reprinted with permission.
“I always make Daddy sad.”
That is not something that any parent wants to hear. This was my 8-year-old daughter Noa just a few weeks ago. She was crying and eventually my wife Rialette got it out of her. She was crying because she thought that no matter what she does, she always makes me sad.
That was tough.
Dealing with mental illness and depression is super hard just by yourself; the impact it has on one’s family is exponentially more difficult to deal with.
Noa lives in her imagination, a magical world. She is singing most of the time and loves reading and making up stories (she is into monsters at the moment). Noa, as many kids I believe at some point, has a magical worldview (i.e. she believes that everything that happens in her world — from it raining, her getting sick, or daddy being sad — is caused by her alone, as if she has a magical power to make everything happen). Noa and other kids like my daughter think they’re the center of their world, and they cause all events — good and bad — in it. For Noa and for my 6-year-old son Luther, I have to deconstruct things, help them see the real causes, and help them deal with them and do something about them. But because of my kids’ different personalities, I have to approach both of them very differently, with the same intent.
I have to continually keep the dialogue going, it is not a one-off conversation.
Here’s how I talk to Noa about my depression, and help her deal with it:
I’m super honest and practical, in a way she can understand. I tell her that daddy’s brain doesn’t always release enough happy stuff; it’s like being sick. And I tell her I need to take care of myself: take my medicine, eat healthy, and exercise.
I stress that it is not her fault and that I am responsible for my own happiness, as she is for hers.
I explain that sometimes it’s difficult for me to deal with a high-stress situation and I need to leave the room and be alone for a while. And again … it’s not her fault. I need to reset my brain.
I always accept any flowers, drawings, or letters that she brings to help make me feel better.
My son Luther, on the other hand, is another story.
He doesn’t communicate as much as Noa; he is more of an introvert. My wife and I have learned to watch his actions closely: In what state does he leave his room? What is he choosing to wear? What is he playing with? We have learned to read those signs to gauge his mood. And in a way, we have to communicate with him, with not just words, but also our actions and body language. In essence, I communicate with him the same message as I do with Noa: that it’s not his fault, that I am responsible for my own happiness as he is for his, but I communicate it in a way that he understands.
The larger story we need to create for our kids is that we need to help them value and deal with all of their emotions. Many of us are simply victims of the tide of emotions that wash over us everyday; we just react to whatever mood has taken us from wherever it has taken us, spending our days being dragged along by this uncontrollable force called “emotion.”
We need to label our feelings.
When we label our feelings, we can begin to deal with them; this is an important aspect to understand when we first ask ourselves, “How do I talk to my kids about depression?”
The ability to label our feelings is necessary for all of us. What am I actually feeling? Mad, angry, happy, frustrated, sad, lonely, depressed? Each emotion calls for a different response. And, once you have named it, it is separate from you. There is truth in the power of naming. Naming boxes and controls something. And that is what we need with our emotions.
So to help our kids, especially Luther, we put up a little chart of emojis so they can point to how they are feeling. Then we ask a second question, that deepens the control: Where do you feel it? Is it a tightness in your chest, or a hollow feeling in your tummy?
We explain to them that all emotions are good.
Yes, even being sad is good for you. Emotions are part of our makeup and shouldn’t be denied. Too much of our culture and traditions tell us not to be a certain way: “Boys don’t cry,” “Nice girls don’t get angry,” and so on. This is, of course, utter crap. Emotions need to be acknowledged and dealt with with wisdom, not swept under the rug.
Have you ever seen someone punish a table or chair when a kid walks into it? “Stupid table!” I can’t stand that. It’s not a stupid table, you need to watch where you are going. How many adults do you know that blame all their problems and pain on “stupid tables”? It’s never their fault or responsibility. “I’m angry because you made me angry!” No, you made yourself angry.
It’s your choice.
We want to teach our kids to take responsibility for their actions, and their emotions. I never blame inanimate objects, and I try to never label external circumstances as either good or bad (some stoicism coming through there I suppose).
I heard something similar from Josh Waitzkin, the chess prodigy, say on the Tim Ferriss Show that whenever there is a storm he will tell his son to look at the beautiful rainy day, and they need to go and play outside.
Weather isn’t good or bad, it’s just weather.
How do I talk to my kids about depression? Well in the same way I talk to them about all emotion; I try to teach them to deconstruct, to find the cause, to recognize, to voice, and to take responsibility for themselves.
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