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When You Need to Explain Depression to Your Kids

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I think this is a really tough subject to cover. I’ve had to explain bereavement to young children, but because I’m not a parent, I haven’t had to explain my depression to a child. I have worked with young children for eight years, including some who had experienced some rough times and needed a lot of support. I have also been the child of someone suffering with depression. So rather than tell people what to do, I’m just going to put a few ideas out there.

Here are some things you can consider when trying to explain depression to a child:

Fill your child in when your routine changes.

When you suffer with depression, sometimes the routine and behavior changes are noticeable to loved ones. Somethings may be subtle, but others are blatant. Children pick up on this. It’s important to keep them up to date with what’s happening. Tell them you need to go lie down or that you’re going to eat your lunch a bit later to reduce their worry about changes.

Don’t shut out your child, but also take the time you need. 

It’s not uncommon to push people away when you’re depressed. You may become quieter, tired or want to be alone. Make sure you still cuddle your child, tell them you love them and that you’re proud of them. Sit with them while they play or do an activity together. You may think your child will struggle to see you like this, but they will struggle more if they feel suddenly ignored or notice you aren’t around. 

You can also give them a distraction. If you feel you need to be left alone, you could ask them to “draw a picture for when I come back. I won’t be long.” Remind children you will be back soon when you spend time away during the day.

Answer their questions as honestly as you can. 

I remember asking at a young age, “What do those tablets do?” and hearing, “I don’t want her to see me taking them.” Although I understand this now, as a young child I was alarmed. I knew tablets were for when you were sick, but I didn’t know what was wrong. 

You could say something like, “This is my medicine to make me better because my head is sick — it’s making me feel sad, but I’m OK.” 

Also, always keep any medication out of children’s reach. Explain they’re not for them to eat because they can make them sick, and that these tablets are only for you because the doctor said that’s OK.

Explain what’s going on simply and honestly.

You may have to find a happy medium between “nothing’s wrong” and “the doctor says I have depression.” Try something simple like, “I went to the doctors, where you went with mommy to get medicine, because I felt a little sick and sad. They said I need to do some getting better. I’ll be OK. You make me feel happy.”

If they don’t understand, it’s OK.  

Don’t worry. If they look confused, it’s explainable. It’s hard to work out depression for yourself, never mind explain it perfectly to others. Let them ask questions and try to answer them the best you can. 

But, “I don’t want them to see me like this.”

That is completely normal. When I feel depressed, I don’t want to burden others. But you don’t have to do any of this yourself, especially while you’re struggling. Speak with your partner, close family, child’s school or childcare and make sure you all stick to the same explanations. You may ask a relative to look after your child while you recover for short periods of time or to move in with you to help out. If you’re a single parent, it’s important you have support from others. If you have a partner, it’s important you’re on the same page. You don’t have to do this alone.

Follow this journey on Not Just Depressed.

The Mighty is asking the following: If you’re a parent with a mental illness, tell us about a time you tried (either successfully or unsuccessfully) to explain to your children about your mental illness/mental health issues. How did they react? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: April 3, 2016
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