I posted a link last night about talking to kids about mental health. It’s something that’s been very much on my mind this last couple of weeks, particularly as I’ve quite noticeably not been myself. But my kids are so young, only 4 and 7. How on earth could I explain all this in a way they’d understand, without over burdening them? Should I explain it at all? Part of me felt that in not saying anything I was protecting them, because although we’ve touched on it over the years, we’ve never gone into it in any great detail. Mental illness is so difficult for adults to understand, how could kids even begin to grasp it?
But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I realised they already know something is up. My daughter has been asking if I’m ok on a daily basis, and my son has been incredibly angry. Both are bright kids, there’s not much gets past them. So this morning, seeing as there was a window of (relative) calm in the time before they left for school, I decided to broach the subject. Here’s roughly how the conversation went:
Me: Do you remember the way we went to stay with Nana and Grandad last week?
My girl: Yeah, cos your head and your throat were sore (best we could come up at short notice last week)
Me: That’s right. Well I wanted to explain something about that to you. My head is still a bit sore, and sometimes when that happens, it can make me a little bit shouty, and not able to do the things that we usually do together. Sometimes it means I need more rest, or more time on my own. But here’s the most important part – it has nothing to do with you guys. It’s not your fault, it’s just something that happens sometimes. I don’t need you to make me better, that’s not your job. The best thing you can do to help me is just use your listening ears like you always do.
My girl: And give you kisses (leans over to kiss me on the forehead)
Me: Kisses always help! But the really, really important things for you to remember, is that this is not your fault. It’s just something that happens to me every now and then, and then it gets better.
And so the conversation moved on. You’ll notice that my son said nothing throughout this little exchange. He’s quite an anxious kid, and tends to react in one of a number of ways when something is a little overwhelming – he fidgets, he won’t make eye contact, he laughs etc. He was doing all of these through the whole conversation. There’s no doubt in my mind that he was listening, but he processes things very differently to my girl. Of the two of them, I think he’d be the one who’d be far more likely to take it personally, to feel that he was somehow the cause of the problem.
Did I say the right thing? I’ve no idea. I didn’t labour the point, but I hope I’ve helped them understand why I’ve not been what they expect me to be of late. I hope they know that it’s nothing to do with them. We always, always encourage them to tell us whatever is going on for them, even if it’s something hard – that we can’t help them figure things out if they don’t tell us the problem. I’m guessing the only way to really show them that is to model it. I’m not myself at the moment, so I asked for help, and it helped. I want them to always feel able to do that. I want them to know that sometimes everyone gets angry, or sad, or tired, or any of the multitude of other emotions there are out there. I want them to know that’s ok. The absolute worst stigma I have ever faced is that which has come (and is still very much coming) from myself. If having conversations like this mean my kids won’t know what that feels like, then this whole sorry mess has been worth every second of chaos.