[Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who offers sage advice on discussion postpartum mood and anxiety disorders with your children. -Jenna]
When you are ready, talking to your child about your experience with a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder can be very beneficial. It can help to decrease stigma around mental health, encourage discussion of caring for your well-being, and assist your child in understanding changes he or she has seen in your mood, behavior, or within the family.
Often adults believe they are protecting children by not sharing information with them about these kinds of sensitive topics, but without accurate information kids will make assumptions about what they have observed. When we are missing information and are confused, our minds tend to fill in the blanks.
Children’s minds operate in this same manner, filling in the blanks with some kind of explanation. Giving children developmentally appropriate, accurate information will help to alleviate any fears or incorrect beliefs they have created.
In making the decision to have a conversation with your child, consider the following before deciding how and what you will say:
Think about what you’d like your child to gain from the discussion.
Are you hoping to help your child understand the changes in your mood or behavior that he or she may have observed? Or maybe you would like to start having open conversations about mental health and taking care of yourself. Whatever your objective is, knowing this will help you in deciding what details of your story are important to share at this time.
Look at this as the first in a series of talks.
As children grow, they will have different needs with respect to understanding mental health and your experience. For example, a toddler may simply need you to label with words why mommy was acting differently. Whereas an elementary age child may have more questions about how someone develops a sad sickness, or whatever age-appropriate name you may choose for the PMAD.
Keeping an open dialogue throughout your child’s development will benefit both of you. Your child will have an understanding of what he or she has seen, will know that it is okay to discuss mental health, and will know that caring for yourself is important. You will feel more relaxed, as you no longer have to worry about keeping things from your child or how to explain them.
Take care of yourself first.
Having explained why it is helpful to share your story with your child, it is important to note that you need to be in a good enough place where you can handle this discussion. If you’re not there today, that’s okay. Take care of yourself first.
Healing is a process, and now may not be the right time in your recovery. In the meantime, you can simply label your feelings for your child when necessary, rather than having to address the broader topic of battling a PMAD. You may want to say something like “Mommy’s feeling sad/worried today and I’ll do something to feel better.” If your child has questions, you can explain that it’s hard to answer them right now because you are not feeling well.
It would be helpful then to make the comparison of a time when your child was sick and all he could do was sleep or rest until he felt better. When you think you may be ready, talk to your therapist, healthcare provider, partner, or someone in your support system about any concerns you have and let them help guide you in making this decision.
Consider your concerns about having this talk, as well as what the benefits would be.
What are you comfortable speaking about? What are you uncertain about? Talking to your therapist or someone in your support network can help you to sort this out. You may also find it helpful to practice what you would say with this person.
Once you have a general idea of what you might want to say to your child, review the age guidelines below to help you prepare for this discussion:
Toddlers and Preschool Age
This age group needs the simplest explanation, labeling moods or behavior with basic terms. For example, “Mommy feels sad sometimes. When I’m sad, I talk to someone to help me feel better.”
These children can handle a little more information. They are very perceptive and have active imaginations, which is why clarification of what they have observed is so important. With this age, you can introduce the idea of mental illness and compare it to a physical illness. This would be particularly helpful if you are currently struggling with a PMAD or experience ongoing episodes of a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety.
Avoid using any medical terms in explaining your story. Instead, try naming your struggle something associated with the predominant emotion your child would have noticed, such as a “sad or worry sickness” or for postpartum psychosis, you may prefer to use something like “jumbled up thoughts or confused thoughts sickness.”
Adolescents can understand more detailed information about perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. They will likely be interested in understanding how it developed and how it will affect them presently, such as how available you will be for them, or in the future by wondering about their own mental health. Some adolescents may be more comfortable having this conversation while also doing an activity (that isn’t distracting) such as walking, drawing, or playing with a ball. Encourage them to ask you any questions they may have now or in the future.
Regardless of the child’s age, there are some general messages that are important to convey in your discussion. Assure your child that she did not do anything to cause the illness and it’s not her responsibility to make it better. Instill a sense of hope by explaining that you are getting help and are working on feeling better. Or if you have recovered, you can simply make a point of saying that you got help and are doing better now. Finally, encourage your child to ask questions.
For more information on this topic, Children of Parents with a Mental Illness is a wonderful resource. Their website is www.copmi.net.au. There you will find more age-appropriate considerations, as well as videos to help facilitate discussion of depression and anxiety.
~Laura Winters, LCSW
Postpartum Health & Harmony