I waited too long to tell Sophie about my depression. I didn’t know what to say to my daughter. I was embarrassed and afraid. I wanted to protect her. I worried: Would telling my daughter damage our relationship? Would she respect me less? Would she, after learning about her father’s history of severe and chronic depression, fear for her own future mental health?
I deferred this conversation with my daughter for 16 years. In this, I wasn’t unusual.
For a long time, fear and stigma about mental illness have led people to shy away from trying to talk to their children about mental health problems. This may be particularly true for depression. Around one in five children has a parent who struggles with the condition, according to the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. Many parents do everything they can to avoid talking about it. I know I did.
Whether or not to talk to your child about your depression is a highly personal decision. I’m sharing my perspective, not to tell anyone how to parent, but because my experience suggests that it’s better to err on the side of talking. A swath of expert opinion, such as this study in the journal Frontiers of Psychology, also points to the benefits of being open with children about a parent’s mental health issues.
I had my reasons for not telling Sophie about my depression, which began several years before her birth and stretched through her toddlerhood. I thought that by keeping it from Sophie, I would be shielding her. That’s what fathers are supposed to do, I thought.
I also made excuses to avoid the conversation. There never seemed to be a “right time” to have it. I wanted to wait until I was sure the depression wouldn’t return before I told her. As I continued having minor ebbs and flows with my mood, this meant that months, and then years, rolled by. I got used to having a dark secret.
Each time I consider raising the topic, I second-guessed myself. I thought, “Sophie probably couldn’t handle it,” or “it would be wrong of me to impose on my child.” In retrospect, I was wrong about many of these things.
What I didn’t see were the upsides of telling my daughter about my depression. Telling Sophie helped her to make sense of her world and her childhood. It answered so many questions: Why did Mom and Dad sometimes fight? Why did Dad sometimes withdraw? Why did Dad become a psychologist? Why did the room go quiet when certain topics got raised? Being honest with my daughter helped her to understand.
I also didn’t see that telling Sophie would lift the burden of my secret — and that it would be a huge relief. I didn’t see that telling Sophie was a way of treating her with respect — and that it’s good to respect your children. I didn’t see that telling her the truth about my problem would open doors for further conversations about depression: I could now better help her if she ever had issues with her mood. I could also better arm her to be a resource for her friends, many of whom, sadly, have struggled with depression.
But I won’t pretend that it was easy. These conversations are hard to start. There is no single recipe or one-size-fits-all solution to handle this issue. Depression takes many forms and affects different people differently. Your children will vary in how curious or worried they might be about this topic. Trust your instincts — it’s likely that no one knows your child better than you.
You may be concerned that you’ll say “the wrong thing” to your child. Keep in mind that life is messy and confusing sometimes. Odds are, your depression is something you may not completely understand yourself. The idea that you can explain it perfectly to your child in one sitting may be unrealistic. And it would be normal for your child to have questions. Remember, in taking the big first step to talk to your child about depression, you’re starting a dialogue, not finishing one.
Here are a few gentle recommendations for talking to your child about depression:
If you’re concerned about whether you should talk to your children about your depression, you’re not alone. I’ve been there, as have many others. There are resources available that can help. The important part is making the decision and taking the first step.