Explaining Depression To A Child

Depression impacts all parts of our life. It can affect our work, our day-to-day routines, and the way we relate with other people. When we have children in our lives, having depression can be especially difficult.  We feel guilty that we can’t always be fun and playful. We might be snappy, or withdraw.

If depression is affecting how we interact with a child, we should consider telling them that we are unwell. Children are perceptive – they will notice changes in our behaviour; and if these changes aren’t explained, they may come to believe they’re somehow responsible for them.

Explaining Depression To A Child

Talk It Over

Before we speak to a child about depression, talking it over with someone else can help us to plan exactly what we want to say, and how we want to say it. It can ease our anxieties because we will have a clearer idea about the way we want to conversation to go.

Together, we can share ideas on the way that we could say things. We might decide that we don’t want to tell our child about all aspects of our illness.  Friends, family members, and professionals can be good to speak to about this.

Have A Think About…

  • Who. Who is best placed to speak to our child about our illness? Do we want to speak to them ourselves or would we like someone else to speak to them about it? Do we want to speak to them alone or do we want to draft in a partner or friend? Do we want a professional to help us speak to them?
  • When. When do we want to tell them? Do we want to tell them as soon as we begin to struggle, or do we want to give ourselves time to understand our own illness? Children are often very perceptive and pick up when something’s not quite right. Once we’ve decided to speak to them, we need to pick a time to have a chat. Would it be better to do it after school one day or do we want to wait for a weekend? Do we want to do it before bed, over the tea table, or another time of day?
  • Where. Where do we want to be when we speak to them? It’s a good plan to try and find somewhere where we’re comfortable, and where our child feels comfortable. Finding a place where we’re unlikely to be interrupted can be a good idea. Children often like to ‘talk while doing’, so we could try speaking to them while they’re drawing, building a train set, or something else.

What To Tell Them

There aren’t any ‘right’ words when it comes to speaking about our illness. Exactly what we say will depend on the age of the child we’re talking to, and how much we want them to know.

We don’t have to tell them all the ins and outs of our illness. We can start with very basic details. Over time, our child is likely to ask more questions, and begin to build up their own picture of our illness. Giving our child loads of details all at once can be overwhelming.

It’s important to be honest as possible with our children, without overloading them. They will probably be able to tell if we’re not telling the truth, and that can make it hard for them to trust us.

Depending on the age of our child, they might worry about things such as whether it means we’re going to die. Young children are likely to relate our illness to what they know about physical illness. It’s important to try and ask them if they have any worries, and clarify some of these details with them.


Reassure Them

Often, when a child finds out that someone they love is ill, they can begin to blame themselves, or feel responsible. It’s important to let our child know that our depression is not their fault. They are not responsible for our illness. This might be something that we need to repeat to reassure our child. We could ask them whether they have any worries or concerns. Once we know what their worries are, we can work on ways to support our child through them.

Give Them Time

Our child may well need some time to digest what we’ve told them. They might not have much of a reaction to begin with. Or they might react in a way that we find difficult to hear. They will probably think things over for little while, whatever their reaction. They might have questions that pop up at a later date. It’s okay if we don’t know how to answers their questions, as long as we explain that to them.

Check In With Them

Our child might have all sorts of thoughts and feelings about our illness. Checking in with them and asking them how they feel, can help to create an open, honest environment. They might not want to talk to us about it and would prefer to speak to someone else. Our local carers centre will have staff who are specialised in working with young people. Alternatively, they might prefer to speak to a friend or family member.

Support For Our Child

It can be helpful to put some support in place for our child. This provides them with time and space to talk things through with somebody impartial. It can also ease some of our worries. It can help to know that they have someone to talk to if they need it.

We might not be in a position to support them ourselves. It can help to have an extra person, or couple of people, involved.  People we could approach to help support our child include teachers, our GP, our local carers centre, or family and friends.

Go Easy On Yourself

Depression is a horrible illness to live with. And when our condition runs the risk of affecting other people, we can feel especially wretched – especially if that other person is a child.

But while we might feel guilty, we need to remind ourselves our depression isn’t our fault. We didn’t choose to feel this way. And we’re doing everything we possibly can *right now* for the child in our life. Even if we’re not able to do as much, or be there as much – explaining our illness to our child allows them to connect with us and understand what’s going on.

It’s also worth noting that children are resilient, and extremely open-minded. They won’t judge us for having depression, or think less of us because we’re ill. As long as they’re treated with love, compassion and respect, they will be fine.  And with time, we will be too.

Please help us to help others and share this post, you never know who might need it.