Explaining Mental Health to a Child

What should I tell my child about my mental health condition(s)?

It is essential to communicate with your children and explain your mental health to them. Give as much information as they can handle, being careful not to overwhelm them. This gives children a chance to voice their concerns, enabling them be able to cope better with their circumstances and feelings. Mental health should not be a secret kept from children. They may grow up confused and thinking that their parents behaviour is their fault. Children, much like adults, can cope better with the upsets in life if they can understand what is happening and why.

Dr. Frank Ochberg, M.D, a pioneer in trauma science, an educator and one of the founding fathers of modern psycho-traumatology, gives his views on the topic here

Explaining my own mental health conditions to my daughter was a harrowing and difficult experience for the both of us. After much searching online, I found a children’s book that explains PTSD very well for young children. Written in 1997 by Patience Mason – Why Is Mommy Like She Is?

I adapted the narrative of the book to fit my own circumstances, so that my daughter could better understand my mental health. My daughter is ten years old, but older than her years in her mind and soul. She is wise and intuitive, understanding and compassionate. She tried to understand as best she could, but I could sense that she was still unsure. So, I wrote her a letter and went a little more in-depth. She sat and read it while I sat with her. And then we had a discussion where she asked me some questions and I answered them as best I could for her. It felt good for both of us to do that. She has told me since that now she feels like she can speak and confide in me more often. And I feel now that she understands my mental health struggles. She is aware of the signs when I am feeling low, and what she needs to do i.e go stay with her dad or call someone. It’s an added responsibility on her, that I wish with all my heart that she didn’t have to deal with. But it is so.

Below is an excerpt from the letter that I wrote my daughter:

…You know how upset my dad made me feel when I was a child, and how much sadness I have felt from that… Well all of that sadness and emotional pain had an effect on my child brain as it grew into an adult brain. And now my adult brain has a few problems – called mental health conditions.

Remember we spoke about PTSD, before when we read that book? Well, it said in that book: 

P – is for Post, which means after.

T – is for Traumatic which can mean distressing or dangerous. 

S – is for Stress.

D – is for Disorder, which means out-of-order.

So all together, PTSD means: The after-pain of a distressing or dangerous situation is very stressful for a person, and the stress makes that person’s life disordered / out-of-order.

When people have PTSD, they keep remembering their painful memories. Like a DVD player that keeps playing the same movie over and over. They sometimes feel sad and cry more often. They sometimes feel tired and want to sleep more often. Or they cannot sleep properly at night. They might have nightmares. They sometimes feel irritable, angry or stressed out and worried. They sometimes feel depressed. The doctors and therapists are very good at finding ways to ease these symptoms and make people feel better.  

PTSD doesn’t always happen to people who have been in a lot of pain, it only happens in extremely sad or painful situations. 

I also have BPD, which has symptoms similar to PTSD. Except, BPD is also a bit like having another brain inside your head that comes up with really bad ideas and wants to say stupid things. Sometimes the BPD brain is difficult to keep quiet. The doctors and therapists are very good at teaching people how to control the BPD brain.

My dad has made me feel very sad for a long time – when I was a small child, not letting me see my mum and then when I left his house and he abandoned me. Because of this and because of the BPD, my mental health condition is ‘complex’.

‘Complex’ means a complicated mix of things.

I have a complicated mix of emotions and feelings. And sometimes they are difficult to control, like when I am crying or snappy. 

I am so sorry for the times that you have seen me crying for what seems like little or no reason. And the times that I have snapped at you for what seems like little or no reason. And the times that Ive been easily annoyed. And the times that I haven’t been able to get out of bed or take you to the park or to school. I always feel so awful and that is why I always say sorry and tell you that it’s not your fault. It is very important for you to know that it is not your fault. It is not my fault either. It is the BPD’s and PTSD’s fault.

The BPD and PTSD never quite leave, but sometimes they go to sleep. They switch off and I am just mummy again. I like being just mummy 🙂 The doctors are helping me to be more like just mummy everyday 🙂 And soon the BPD and the PTSD will be switched off a lot more. 

………. ………. ………. ………. ………. ………. ………. ………. ………. ……….

Writing a letter was a great idea. My daughter can keep it safe and go back to it anytime she wants… Maybe for some information again, or for reassurance. I don’t know, I’ve never been in such a situation. It’s a learning curve for the both of us at the moment. I’m just trying to provide my daughter with some stability of thought, against the instability of life. Life will at times be unstable – that’s life! Riding high in April, shot down in May… 

We continue to talk, my daughter asks me questions and is very open and honest with me. As I am with her. We lost that for a bit through the depression phase. Last year I was closing off and dissociating. I was not spending enough time with her. She spent every weekend with her father, having days out with him, his new girlfriend and her son. I thought it would be good for her as I was not feeling great and didn’t go out much. But I realised at the beginning of this year that I was missing valuable connecting time with her. So I started having her back every Sunday, well most Sundays, give or take. Her father and I have never had any problems with ‘access’. I hate that word that the courts use, access. Access to your own child! I hate not having her on the weekends, waking up with her and being able to chill and cuddle before we start the day or watching a movie in bed. But I would rather give up those things so that she may have that quality and connecting time with her father. I wish I’d had that with my mother when I was growing up. She sometimes stays with me on the weekend, so we do have some weekends together.

At the beginning of the year, I did start having my daughter for one of the weekends of the month, for day-trips. But the anxieties were still too high for that. We had one day trip to London, to the Science Museum. It was a nice day out. My daughter really enjoyed it, but it did stress me out so much! The journey there was not too bad, my daughter was super excited so that made me feel good. I found the museum quite boring but my daughter loved it.
We’ve been swimming a couple of times. One time, I took her cousins and my friend’s daughter and we went into the town pool. They all had a blast. It stressed me out big time. It was too loud and busy, it totally overrode my senses and my anxiety was super high. I forgot my earplug as well. I tried to relax as I played with the girls doing hand stands in the pool, but I was glad to leave!

We’ve started going for long walks on Sundays, walking the dog through the peaceful woods with my friend and his daughter who is 15. It gets us out of the house, gets us some fresh air and sometimes my daughter will chat openly to me as were wandering through the woods. Other times she’s running around, climbing, exploring or chatting to my friend’s daughter.

We’ve started reviewing our day. At the end of the day we ask each other what’s been the best, and what’s been the worst part of our day. We will chat about the worst part of the day if we need to.


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