Young children in particular have a tendency to take things personally, and may assume their parent’s sadness is their fault, said Colleen Cullen, an associate professor of medical psychology at Columbia University.
Shying away from conversations about mental illness also implies that it isn’t something that should be talked about, which only perpetuates stigma. “The best preventive measure for many mental health concerns for kids is just being able to talk about it and express themselves and have open conversations with the adults around them,” said Dr. Huston.
Growing up, Virna Lichter, a Tampa-based meditation teacher, never blamed herself for her mother’s depression, but she didn’t know what to make of it. “Every now and then Mom would go to her bedroom, and there was nothing we could do,” she recalled. “Inside, I was like, ‘OK, when I grow up, none of this is going to happen.’”
As she got older, Ms. Lichter figured her mother’s persistent depression had to do with her rocky marriage and divorce, so when she started noticing “glimpses” of depression in herself, in her 20s, she busied herself building the kind of life she thought would make her happy. But in her early 30s, she fell into a deep depression.
“I had the career and the house I wanted and the husband that I wanted, and the baby. And guess what, I’m not happy,” she said. That’s when she finally sought treatment.
Shoot for age-appropriate honesty.
Instead of avoiding conversations about depression, parents can shoot for “age-appropriate honesty,” Dr. Cullen said. Pre-school children like my daughter might not be able to understand words like “depression,” but they understand emotions, like sadness, or physical illnesses, like stomachaches. Breaking it down into simple, relatable terms can provide even young children with a basis of understanding.
Parents can also reassure their children that depression can get better with the right kind of treatment, and share what steps they are taking to manage it so that a child understands that the situation is under control.