Talking about mental health so the whole family can understand.
Happy New Year moms and dads! I hope your home is still full of holiday cheer and that your children go back to school soon.
Like many of you, I don’t do the New Year’s resolutions thing. There’s a lot of smart scientist people who say that creating those expectations just sets us up for failure and I don’t need that kind of negativity in my life. However, whether I call it a resolution or not, there is one thing I want to be more mindful of in 2019 and beyond: Being more open and honest about mental health with my children.
At ages 5 and 6, I believe they’re old enough to hear more about it, ask questions, and begin creating empathy in their hearts for everyone who lives with mental health struggles. One afternoon while dinner simmered on the stove, I found myself discussing all the things with them.
We had scheduled my son for an ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) evaluation with his pediatrician. His dad has ADHD and from my own intense research, I had self-diagnosed him with ADHD. While we aren’t interested in medication, we would like something on paper so as to open up resources for him in the classroom. My curious kiddo asked me what his appointment was for and thus the floodgates were opened.
I explained to him that his dad and I thought his brain might be different. The reason he may struggle to focus or sit still in class could be because he’s wired differently. His pediatrician will talk to him as well as me and Dad, we’ll fill out some forms and tests, and will find out if he has what’s called ADHD.
I emphasized repeatedly that there was nothing wrong with him. He wasn’t weird, he wasn’t bad, his brain was just different, and we wanted him to be successful in school and life, which meant knowing as much about him and his body as possible.
I surprised even myself when I segued into explaining to them what my medicine is for. They knew I took a pill every morning, but I had previously always explained it as a way for me to stay happy, which isn’t exactly true. With a deep breath, I dove in and explained to them in kid speak why I take Lexapro. I told them that my brain is also different, that it works in a special way. My brain needs help so I can be the best mom I can be. My morning medicine helps me to see things clearly, helps me to be productive, helps me to be patient and kind and loving towards them. Much like Dad’s, and potentially my son’s brains, mine, too, was just different.
After a short, pensive silence, my daughter spoke up and asked, “So what do I have?”
“What do you mean, baby?”
“Well Dad and maybe Levi have ADHD, you have anxiety and depression, what do I have?”
I sat stunned for a moment, wholly unprepared for this particular question. “Well, err, you have just the right brain for a 6-year-old girl named Lily Hammer.”
“So I don’t have anything? Everyone else has something,” she pouted.
Another deep breath. I told her that, as far as we knew, her brain didn’t need any extra help, but that could change as she got older. I emphasized that what she does have is a heart full of kindness and compassion toward others and that oftentimes that is exactly what people with different brains need the most. I know I do. When my anxiety gets the best of me and I have to take a different medicine to calm down, what I need most is a hug and for someone to just love me. And that, I told my daughter, is what she has.
She smiled, said okay, and went back to her drawing. My son had long ago bounced off to create some sort of mischief. And I gave myself a pat on the back for handling the unforeseen situation so well.
I hope in the following year I continue to be transparent with my children about my struggles as well as my victories. I want them to learn from loving me how to love others who are different. I want them to grow up knowing no one is perfect and we all have our stuff to work through and live with. My hope is this will teach them both compassion for others and love for themselves.
If you’re struggling with mental health, please seek help. Don’t be afraid to make an appointment with your doctor or call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 if you need someone to talk to sooner. And if you live with mental health issues, share your story. You never know who needs to hear it.