I waited too long to tell Sophie about my depression. I didn’t know what to say to my daughter. I was embarrassed and afraid. I wanted to protect her. I worried: Would telling my daughter damage our relationship? Would she respect me less? Would she, after learning about her father’s history of severe and chronic depression, fear for her own future mental health?
I deferred this conversation with my daughter for 16 years. In this, I wasn’t unusual.
For a long time, fear and stigma about mental illness have led people to shy away from trying to talk to their children about mental health problems. This may be particularly true for depression. Around one in five children has a parent who struggles with the condition, according to the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. Many parents do everything they can to avoid talking about it. I know I did.
Whether or not to talk to your child about your depression is a highly personal decision. I’m sharing my perspective, not to tell anyone how to parent, but because my experience suggests that it’s better to err on the side of talking. A swath of expert opinion, such as this study in the journal Frontiers of Psychology, also points to the benefits of being open with children about a parent’s mental health issues.
Seeing beyond the fear
I had my reasons for not telling Sophie about my depression, which began several years before her birth and stretched through her toddlerhood. I thought that by keeping it from Sophie, I would be shielding her. That’s what fathers are supposed to do, I thought.
I also made excuses to avoid the conversation. There never seemed to be a “right time” to have it. I wanted to wait until I was sure the depression wouldn’t return before I told her. As I continued having minor ebbs and flows with my mood, this meant that months, and then years, rolled by. I got used to having a dark secret.
Each time I consider raising the topic, I second-guessed myself. I thought, “Sophie probably couldn’t handle it,” or “it would be wrong of me to impose on my child.” In retrospect, I was wrong about many of these things.
What I didn’t see were the upsides of telling my daughter about my depression. Telling Sophie helped her to make sense of her world and her childhood. It answered so many questions: Why did Mom and Dad sometimes fight? Why did Dad sometimes withdraw? Why did Dad become a psychologist? Why did the room go quiet when certain topics got raised? Being honest with my daughter helped her to understand.
I also didn’t see that telling Sophie would lift the burden of my secret — and that it would be a huge relief. I didn’t see that telling Sophie was a way of treating her with respect — and that it’s good to respect your children. I didn’t see that telling her the truth about my problem would open doors for further conversations about depression: I could now better help her if she ever had issues with her mood. I could also better arm her to be a resource for her friends, many of whom, sadly, have struggled with depression.
But I won’t pretend that it was easy. These conversations are hard to start. There is no single recipe or one-size-fits-all solution to handle this issue. Depression takes many forms and affects different people differently. Your children will vary in how curious or worried they might be about this topic. Trust your instincts — it’s likely that no one knows your child better than you.
Starting the conversation
You may be concerned that you’ll say “the wrong thing” to your child. Keep in mind that life is messy and confusing sometimes. Odds are, your depression is something you may not completely understand yourself. The idea that you can explain it perfectly to your child in one sitting may be unrealistic. And it would be normal for your child to have questions. Remember, in taking the big first step to talk to your child about depression, you’re starting a dialogue, not finishing one.
Here are a few gentle recommendations for talking to your child about depression:
- Before you talk, have a plan for what you want to say about depression. How will you broach the subject and explain it? It might help to strategize with a partner or friend beforehand.
- If you have a partner, make sure they agree with and support your decision to talk to your child.
- Speak at the level of your child. It might help to talk about depression in terms that connect to behaviors they’ve seen at home. For example, you might say, “Because I have depression, sometimes I get very tired and I need extra rest or a break.”
- Make sure your child understands that depression isn’t their fault — or anyone else’s fault, for that matter. You might say, “Depression sometimes just happens to people. It’s like when you fall and break your arm.”
- Be realistic but also hopeful. As hard as depression can be to cope with, the chances are great that it will eventually subside with the right interventions. If you’re still experiencing depression, you can acknowledge your condition to your child in a hopeful way. For example, you might say, “I’m doing the best I can to get better.”
- If you’re feeling vulnerable about having this conversation, realize that feeling is common and normal!
- If you still have questions about how to proceed, that’s OK too. Gather more information. Consult a therapist, look at reliable internet resources such as this guidance from the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, or check out some helpful books.
If you’re concerned about whether you should talk to your children about your depression, you’re not alone. I’ve been there, as have many others. There are resources available that can help. The important part is making the decision and taking the first step.