The same principle used in aircraft emergencies really helps here: put your own oxygen mask on before attempting to help others. In other words, before you talk to your children about your illness, do you really understand it – and have you got yourself ‘in order’?
Understanding the effects of the illness on your behaviour and treatments and support available to you helps you to manage. It’s important for your family too, because when you understand what’s happening you will feel more in control and confident in explaining it to them - particularly your children.
Mental illness will likely affect your behaviour which your child might notice but not understand. Talking about the illness helps explain any changes they've noticed in you and the family unit. Without an explanation, they'll try making sense of it themselves. They may make assumptions, misunderstand what is happening and blame themselves.
You'll need to consider your child’s age and ability to understand information. Even very young children can gain some understanding of what's going on, if told “mummy’s not well, you’ve done nothing wrong and she’s getting help so she can get better.”
When you start the conversation, children are likely to ask questions. You won’t necessarily have all the answers, but being prepared really helps. One discussion is never enough – a shared understanding takes time and children’s questions and needs for information change as they grow. Encourage your children to ask questions or raise concerns whenever they want.
You can also download a free copy of the Family Focus DVD - specifically for parents who experience depression and/or anxiety, to help you start the conversation with your child and family.