Depression: What Do We Tell the Kids?

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Talking to our kids about depression may be very difficult, but is the best approach in the long-run. So argues Laura Zera in her guest post, “Depression as a Dinner Table Topic.”


Depression as a Dinner Table Topic — Guest Post by Laura Zera

Starting at an early age, human beings go through life trying to attach meaning to experiences. We want to understand why our hamster died, and how Santa will know if we’ve been good or bad. It’s not enough to tell us “because that’s the way it is” when our minds are spinning tales and hopscotching toward conclusions. As humans, our very power lies in our advanced cognitive processes, and bleeds into our ability to use language as a tool for learning and exploration.

So what happens when, as parents, that magnificent brain of ours flickers and flares, and we find ourselves in the prolonged throes of depression? What do we tell the kids?

We may not want to tell them anything, out of worry they’ll latch onto the idea that Mommy or Daddy must be dying, or that they’ll develop related–and equally traumatic–fears. For children of certain ages, that may be true. But eventually there comes a time when bypassing the depression conversation lessens the power of everyone in the family.

Not talking about it doesn’t mean children are without some level of awareness. Mom doesn’t get up with them in the morning as much anymore. Dad hasn’t laughed in a long time, and he always drinks at night. The house feels different. A kid who doesn’t have all the information will capture things without even consciously comprehending them, and his or her gut instinct will holler, “something isn’t right.” In the absence of conversation, the follow-up emotions lean toward confusion and fear.

I bet you can guess what my prescription is. Have the conversation. I’m not idiot enough to tell you that it will be easy, but here are some things I do know:

  • Difficult conversation creates deeper, more bonded relationships
  • Talking about mental illness reduces the shame and stigma around it
  • Acknowledging and showing our vulnerabilities is what true courage is made of
  • Inviting questions from our kids gives them permission to use their voice, and retain their power

Still need some convincing that it behooves you to be candid and open a dialog with your kids? Let me point to a longitudinal study called ACES, or the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (the full article is fascinating; I hope you’ll read it).

From 1995 to 1997, doctors from Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine and the Center for Disease Control interviewed more than 17,000 patients about their childhood and then followed them for 15 years afterward. The initial questions asked patients whether they were subject to physical, verbal or emotional abuse or neglect, if one or both parents suffered from a mental illness, if their parents divorced, or if one or both parents had been alcoholics.

What the team of doctors eventually realized is that there’s a direct link between childhood trauma and adult onset of chronic disease, social and mental problems. The people they talked to who had grown up in difficult environments suffered later in life. The more adverse experiences they had, the higher their adult risk.

Having a parent with a mental illness is considered an adverse experience, but mental illness has also become part of the human condition. We don’t get to pick and choose who will get it, just like we can’t pick and choose whether we’ll be allergic to shellfish and peanuts. So don’t blame yourself for having depression. Talk to your kids about it. Then talk to them some more. One day, they will thank you, both for teaching them the courage to communicate, and for doing the best you could do.

Has this been a dinner table discussion at your house? Or do you disagree with this approach? We’d love to hear from you below.


laura_04-web - Crop v2Laura Zera lives in Seattle with her husband, cat and dog. She is the child of a parent with a mental illness, and has intermittent depressive disorder herself (or what she likes to call “winter”). While her ACE score is 4, she gets a different outcome every time she takes the Myers-Briggs. As a writer, Laura’s work has appeared in an essay anthology, and in online publications. She is the author of Tro-tros and Potholes, West Africa: Solo, and recently completed a memoir. You can connect with Laura on her website, or via Facebook and Twitter.

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