Despite affecting 1 in 4 people in any one year, mental health is still not something many people talk about. Those suffering ill health can find it hard to explain their experiences, and family members are often unsure what to say to provide comfort and support. Mental illness is complicated, sensitive, and at times overwhelming. If adults cannot find the words to explain it to each other, it is easy to understand how families find it even harder to explain it to their children.
It is common for children to be left out of any discussions about depression, even though they live through the disruption it causes. Some parents don’t know what to say so say nothing at all, and some feel they need to protect their children and hide the illness from them. Although this is done with the best of intentions, it can actually do more harm than good. Children are naturally observant and will notice changes in their parent’s mood and behaviour. If these changes are not explained children will construct their own dialogue for what is happening, and often end up blaming themselves.
As well as worrying they are to blame, children may have additional concerns. They can become preoccupied with fears such as whether they will ‘catch’ the illness, who will look after them if their parent goes into hospital, and whether they might need to go and live elsewhere. Without reassurance, children can become upset and anxious. A child may not tell an adult their fears, they might not know how to explain them or might be too scared, but parents may begin to notice changes in their child that reflect these fears.
To protect children it is crucial they are helped to understand they are not to blame, that the changes in their parent in no way reflect how their parent feels about them, and that they are not responsible for making their parent feel better. Books can be a wonderful resource in helping achieve this. Stories such as Perry Panda help a parent to open up a discussion with their child without having to find the words themselves, and they provide a space for the child to ask any questions they may have. Parents will often find that on the first couple of occasions reading a book their child just listens, but they may start asking insightful questions later on.
Books can provide both reassurance to a child and comfort to a parent. If you are struggling to know what to say, try using a book to start the conversation.