sit. stay. good boy.

Making Sense of It All 04/11/2011

A while ago I spent some time blogging about how we can talk to people about Depression – or about mental health issues in general.  But I left out a very important group of people.  Kids.

How do you talk to kids about mental illness?  How am I going to explain my Depression to the important children in my life?  How do you explain it to those in your own?  While people often worry about upsetting kids or frightening them by talking about mental illness – and I’m talking about the kids in your family or very close to you here; the facts indicate that most of the time children worry less about something if they understand it.  Providing them with opportunities to talk and to find out what they think is happening is important.  So is clearly and simply explaining what is actually happening in a way that they can understand.

But finding the right words to explain what needs to be said in kid language is a tough business.  Plus, adults struggle to share their feelings.  Again, accurate and age appropriate information are the best way to go – and this usually goes down best coming from a parent or another adult family member or close friend of the family.

So – how do you know when and how to do it?

If they ask questions about your or  the other person’s health – this is a good opportunity.  A number of resources suggest strategies like asking the child how they are feeling at the moment, if there has been an incident recently then perhaps ask them how they felt when such-and-such did this-or-that; or even if they thought you or the person were acting differently lately – depending on the age of the child.  But whenever you do – pick a time and place where you’re all most likely to be comfortable and feel safe and where you won’t be interrupted.

It’s suggested that you explore the child’s understanding of what’s going on – not just accept their first reply because they could easily just repeat someone’s words without clearly them.  Plus it’s important to know how they learned what they do know.  Also, make sure that you’ve understood properly what they have told you.

Ask questions that are open – that is, they require the child to do more than say ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  Try to get them to say what they think in their own words.

Be ready to reassure them.  They might feel awkward.  They might feel distressed or disloyal or angry or be afraid of causing worry or getting into trouble.  Make sure they know that this is okay.

Now when you come to the explaining part:

There are lots of good resources take a look through some of them to prepare yourself for the talk or use them with the child.  (Please see links at end of post).

Keep some coloured pencils or pens and paper or some play dough handy.  Something that you can use to illustrate what you are telling them about or that you can ask them to draw something to help illustrate a point or  a feeling.  You may also write down thoughts or questions or plans together later (or draw their understanding of things for you when you are exploring what they know).

Think about examples of illnesses that children are familiar with that could be helpful in your explanation eg asthma, diabetes, broken bones, colds, chicken pox (some will depend on what they or their friends/family have had).  Be specific in the comparison that you make  eg asthma and depression both have triggers and physical signs even though they happen in parts of the body, both can seem to come out of nowhere … ; it is not like a cold because you can’t ‘catch’ it.

Or a common example is to compare the body to a car with different parts – different things work together to make the whole car work, but if something goes wrong then it can make the whole car run badly or not start.  In the case of Depression … (a good example of such an explanation can be found in Talking to Children and Young People )

The big ideas to communicate no matter what are:

  • Mental illness is nobody’s fault
  • It’s not YOUR (the kid’s) fault
  • It doesn’t mean that the person doesn’t love you or care about you anymore
  • It is not your responsibility to make the person better.
  • You can’t “catch” it
  • Just because someone else in your family has it doesn’t mean you’ll get it
  • It happens to lots of people, in lots of families – not just this person
  • The person won’t be like this all the time
  • There are treatments like medicine and people to go to for special conversations and doctors who know about this illness
  • It’s not just about the person thinking or feeling differently.  What is happening to the chemicals in their brain is different.

Here is a summary of an outline that I found about how to explain Depression to a child in an Australian COPMI program booklet.

Children can sometimes understand the impact of your illness more easily than they can its cause.  This means that it may be best to describe what the depression does to you rather than what depression is.

So you might tell them that Depression can cause:

  • no energy (making it harder to play)
  • difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much (making it harder to get out of bed or keeping you up late at night)
  • crying a lot (sometimes when there is no apparent reason)
  • losing or gaining weight (because you don’t feel like eating or you eat too much)
  • not enjoying the things that you used to (means that sport or dancing or cooking or whatever it is doesn’t make you smile anymore)
  • make you tired and cranky (can make you get grumpy at the children for no real reason)

What does your depression make you do?

Depression is an illness.  It’s like having a cold or having asthma except it affects your brain.  Your brain controls the things you feel, think and do.

Everybody feels sad sometimes.

Everybody thinks bad things sometimes.

Everybody has things that they wish they could do, but can’t.

What makes your/this child(ren) sad?

What sort of things do they think about?

What do they wish they could do but can’t?

When someone has the illness called Depression, they can feel sad for a long time and not know how to feel better.

Depression can stop people being able to do things that they used to do and enjoy.

I hope that this gives you some ideas for some starting off points.  Seriously – do take the time to check out some of these links.  The first three have really informative and detailed guidelines in them.  The resource lists include children’s storybooks, links and all kinds of things and the other links have some wonderful things in them too.

I have found some other FANTASTIC resources for parents, siblings, extended family and close friends of children who have parents (or family members) with a mental illness.  Even one about babies for those with bubs or planning pregnancy.  There are more out there just waiting to be discovered.

COPMI stands for Children Of Parents with a Mental Illness.  It’s Australia’s national project over this area.

Piecing the Puzzle Together: Raising a Family When Mental Illness is Part of Your Life

Family Talk

Best for Me & My Baby

Talking to Children and Young People



Resources for Children aged up to 6yrs

Resources for Children aged 7 – 12 yrs

Resources for young people aged 13-18 yrs

Resources for Parents

Care Planning for a Family

Links for young people


Australian programmes offering support for children and young people with a parent or sibling with Mental Illness

Family to Family project booklets

When Things Are Sad And Gloomy : Understanding Mental Illness in your Family


6 Responses to “Making Sense of It All”

  1. willowdot21 Says:

    I wish I had known more about how to handle this situation when my husband was going through a major breakdown, the children were small I had very little help and so I had to just cope. I covered things up and lied. Now when any of the boys discuss that time they have strange and some bad memories . Thankfully we are an open and honest family but I wish I had of been more like I am now back then!!


    • I think everybody has wishes like this about some things. It’s really only in recent years that much attention has been put into building resources about how to help people help their children through things like breakdowns and lifelong mental illness. That and information and support for carers is bigger now than it has been in modern times too. Much of it has come out of the recovery movement where the lived experience is emphasised rather than just the illness.
      Perhaps the desire that things were different then is part of what makes you stronger now. It is probably also part of what has made you so open and honest as a family.


  2. Layara Says:

    My 10-years-old niece knows I suffer from depression, even though I never really explained to her what it is, now that I think about it. It’s likely that some other family member explained it to her. She didn’t ask any questions about depression either – but a lot about what therapy’s like and what you do in therapy. I explained that I go there to talk about and to practice difficult social situations, which caused her to call it “theatre group” for a while.

    A few months ago she saw one of my BDI-II evaluation sheets lying around and read it. There is a question on suicidal thoughts in it and – after closing the door so nobody could hear us (we were on a family vacation at that time) – she asked me how I answered this question. I was glad to be able to tell her that I always chose the “zero points answer”: no suicidal thoughts. She received the reply with visible joy and that was the end of the conversation.


    • Thank you for sharing such a story of how closely you and your niece have been touched by your depression. Too many people assume that Children don’t notice much outside their own worlds when they’re really very interested in ours. It’s great that you’ve been open and honest enough with your niece that she felt confident enough to sensitively ask you about your BDI-II questions, trusting that you would make her feel safe whatever the answer was going to be.


  3. LunaSunshine Says:

    This post was extremely helpful and informative. I have thought a little bit about explaining this to my son. He’s only three, and I have decided that until he notices a pattern, that I’m not going to explain. The older, the better. If this doesn’t come up by his teens, I will explain it then, because in all likelihood, he’ll be experiencing similar things that I did at that age.

    Our cat had an accident and passed away a couple of months ago. I was devestated when my husband gave me the news. I just couldn’t get a hold of myself. I cried and cried. Zen was very special to me.

    My son has a speech delay and was limitedly verbal at the time. He knew I was crying, and he thought it was his fault, like he did something to make me cry. I got down on my knees and hugged him hard. I looked him right in the eyes and said, “Mommy is sad because kitty isn’t coming home.” I didn’t know if he understood but it seemed to suffice for the moment.

    Later in the week, he ran around the house looking around. I didn’t know what he was looking for until I heard him call, “Gary? Gary!” (That’s what he calls cats sometimes). I knew he was looking around for Zen and it broke my heart. I didn’t know he would even notice or care for that matter.

    I learned a very important lessont that day. Never underestimate what my son is capable of understanding.


  4. Hannah Says:

    Brilliant post, such great advice – I’ve recently been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, but suffer mostly from the depression side of things, and often wonder how to explain what’s going on to my young children – this post has helped so much, thank you X


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