How to Talk to Your Kids About Your Mental Health Issues

According to the World Health Organization, 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression. That’s a lot of parents.

Anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns experienced by a parent has a profound effect on children says Dr. Laurie Hollman,, a leading psychoanalyst and author of Unlocking Parental Intelligence. She has been treating parents with depression and anxiety and their children for more than 30 years. Children may absorb the parent’s distress without a word about it. They will be frightened and confused. They make think they are at fault for the parent’s changed behavior.

While many parents would shy away from telling their children the truth, Dr. Hollman encourages her patients to speak up if it is affecting their functioning with their kids. “It’s important to decrease the confusion and help children understand the illness and its symptoms so they can cope better.”

Additionally, Dr. Hollman emphasizes to her patients, that this is an important teachable lesson to dispel myths and decrease the stigmas applied to those suffering from mental illness.

Here’s how she counsels parents on how to speak to their children about mental health:

State the facts

Given the stats, mental illness is very real, but also treatable. Simply state the symptoms. Explain that depression and anxiety are common illnesses that often come together. If asked, tell them you don’t die from it.

Help children to make sense of the changes they’ve personally observed, and explain to them that they aren’t expected to become the parent to the parent.

For example, with regard to depression, mom can explain that the illness makes her tired sometimes and a bit grouchy and irritable but it’s not because of anything the child has done.

Ask the children if they have any questions and answer briefly but honestly. Unless they ask, don’t go too deeply into the fact that it has to do with the brain because they may imagine a much more significant disease.

Consider age & maturity level

Explaining to children who are about nine to ten years old and older may help them comprehend the effect on them. Younger than that may just scare them into thinking they aren’t safe and secure. It’s important to tailor your language.

With teens, they will probably “google” depression and then ask more about serotonin effects which you can explain. In fact, ask them to “google” with you.

Reassure them

Depending on the extent of the illness mom can explain that she will still be doing what’s needed for them to prepare for school and the normal routines of everyday life. Let the children know that mom is getting treatment for her problem. Tell the kids that medicine is taken that helps as well. Let them know that they can also speak to a professional that will help them further understand depression and anxiety and the effects their mother’s plight has on them.

Appreciate their patience and assure them that you will do your best to keep your illness from interfering with their daily activities.

Step back and self-reflect

Working toward better emotional health means working toward better parenting. Dr. Hollman emphasizes a term called "parental intelligence" to her patients, which includes the value in stepping back and self-reflecting. Responding to a child effectively requires opening up your thinking and allowing yourself to experience a wide range of emotions without taking immediate action. It means discovering how your past may affect your present approach to parenting.

Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst with specialized clinical training in infant-parent, child, adolescent, and adult psychotherapy. She has been on the faculties of New York University and the Society for Psychoanalytic Study and Research, among others. She has written extensively on parenting for various publications, including the Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, The International Journal of Infant Observation, The Inner World of the Mother, Newsday’s Parents & Children Magazine, Long Island Parent. She also wrote her popular column, PARENTAL INTELLIGENCE, at Moms Magazine and has been a parenting expert for numerous publications such as Good Housekeeping. She currently writes for Active Family Magazine (San Francisco) and blogs for Huffington Post. Her new book is Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior. For more information, visit <> .