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How My 4-Year-Old Responded When I Taught Her About My Mental Illness


I read an article once that referred to having a parent with mental illness as an “adverse childhood event.” It was actually quite a good article but that line stuck with me for a while and caused me deep pain.

You see, I’m a mother and I have a mental illness. Multiple, actually. I’ve spent the better part of three months thinking about this statement — about what it meant for my daughter. I began wondering how on earth I would raise my daughter to understand my illness and shelter her from its pain.

So, the first thing I did was go to our trusty know-it-all friend, Google. My fingers flew over the keys as the words “explaining mental illness to a child” appeared on the screen. I hit search. The good news: the top results were not sponsored ads! Score one point for a slightly less-biased search result.

As I read through a lot of the results, though, I realized these articles were geared towards how to talk to a child about their own mental illness. I would have to dig deeper to find any answers on explaining Mommy or Daddy’s illness to a child.

I eventually gave up my internet search and decided to see if there were books on the subject. Actually, to my surprise, there are. I ordered a couple from Amazon in hopes one or more of them would be helpful for starting the conversation with my 4-year-old.

You see, last week, I hit a low. It wasn’t rock bottom but it was pretty scary. One night, I was hiding in bed while my husband bathed our daughter and got her ready for bed. I went in to kiss her goodnight but didn’t sing our normal bedtime song.

When I got back into our room, I could hear her through the monitor asking for me to sing to her. I picked up the monitor and pressed the microphone. My voice cracked as I began singing “Tomorrow” from Annie, the song I have sung to her every single night since she was born.

I wasn’t necessarily sad about the song, and I wasn’t even beating myself up for a parenting miss. My emotions were just sitting right at the surface so that any meaningful expression was going to bring on the waterworks. The gasping cries continued as I finished the song.

Within a minute after I stopped, my beautiful, sweet 4-year-old daughter got out of bed and came into my room. She said, “I heard you crying, Mommy, so I wanted to come make you feel better.” She jumped up on my bed, wiped the tears from my eyes, and put both hands on my face.

She began to sing to me. Now of course, it was a made-up song about how hugs make her mommy happy and we will smile because we have a puppy. It didn’t matter if she sang her ABC’s. In that moment I both laughed and broke a little more.

Was I making my child feel like she had to take care of me? How do I explain it wasn’t her who made Mommy cry? Is this contributing to her “adverse childhood event?”

Then, I took a pause and thought about all her tantrums, meltdowns and tired cries I have helped her calm. Who knows better than a 4-year-old about overwhelming emotions you can’t explain? So, this is what I said:

“You know how, sometimes, you have big emotions that are hard to deal with? And you know how, sometimes, Mommy says you should go take some time to yourself and read a book or look at the happy jar (sensory jar) to make you feel better? Well, it’s the same for Mommy. Sometimes Mommy has big emotions she can’t explain. And sometimes, Mommy needs to go be by herself so that she can control her big emotions. Thank you for coming to sing to me. Sometimes we can handle our big emotions on our own and sometimes we need help. I will always help you with your feelings if you ask me but I know we all like to be alone sometimes too.”

And for that night, that was enough for her. She went back to bed with no more questions. She retained it though. A couple of days later, when I said I was going to go lie down, she asked, “Do you need time by yourself because of your big emotions?” I was so proud at that point. She understood why I was stepping away. She wasn’t internalizing that Mommy didn’t want to be with her.

So, I came back to this idea of a parent with mental illness being an “adverse childhood event.” Maybe that was true for the children of my generation — the children who grew up in an age where you didn’t talk about mental health. There wasn’t as many resources for help. In fact, many people went undiagnosed or incorrectly diagnosed. So, how could you expect these parents to talk to their kids about something they themselves didn’t understand. Of course these children were affected — these parents weren’t equipped for it to be any other way.

I refuse to give up without a fight. Since that first conversation, my daughter and I have had several more. She has asked about my medicine and I’ve told her, “Mommy’s brain is missing some things that help control her big emotions. The medicine helps.” A couple of days later, my husband had to work late and I had to take her with me to my therapy appointment. We talked about how my therapist is a special person who helps me with my big emotions and it’s alright if you have to ask others for help sometimes.

I’m still waiting on those Amazon books to come in, but I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on this. I need to model my emotion regulation skills for my daughter and have an open conversation with her. I think, if anything, I’m setting her up to be more successful in the unfortunate event that biology passes my mental illness to her.

Parenting with a mental illness is hard enough. I don’t need to shame myself anymore. So I choose hope, openness and teaching my daughter by example. I insist on being a “positive childhood event.”

Photo by Paige Cody on Unsplash