My parents did not know how to handle my depression and mental health issues. They had no idea how to support me, guide me, or ensure that I did not blame myself for disrupting the family with my behaviours. This is not a reflection of how much they loved and still do love me, but they did fail me as a child, and it has shaped my journey through life, and the fact that I am still battling into my twenties.
It must be extremely hard to watch your child go through depression and anxiety, and to feel helpless. However, I promise you that the feeling is a lot worse as a child without the tools to help yourself, and feeling entirely lost and unable to cope. It is so, so important to build a foundation of trust and a base from which to heal, together as a parent and child, or as an entire family.
Now, my childhood was good in lots of ways – I never wanted for anything, I did laugh and I did have friends, but the constant elephant in the room was my depression. It affected everything I did, it was in every breath I took. I acted out. And I struggled. It caused resentment amongst my siblings, I felt that I was not understood, I felt alone, I felt that I angered my family, I felt that I didn’t belong. What was at first an undiagnosed behavioural problem, soon was known to be depression and anxiety, alongside panic attacks that I suffered from the age of 8. At this young age, I simply did not understand these mental illnesses, I couldn’t control them, didn’t have the mental capacity to dissect why they were happening and just did not know how to help myself.
My parents punished me at times for acting out. They never sat down and talked to me about the way I was feeling. They never asked if I was ok. They never tried to understand. It was easier to see me as a problem child. It is so so so important not to punish the behaviours relating to depression and anxiety in your children; mental illness is not a choice, and not something they should be held accountable for.
I remember one particular time that I was punished for my mental illness: As a family we were on holiday in Florida. I was completely out of my comfort zone, and I started to have a panic attack when the family decided to go on one of the theme park rides. My dad got so angry at this, he took me into a corner of the park, and shouted at me for my behaviour. I was shamed. Shamed for something I could not control. Actually, it was a different country, a busy theme park, a new environment, hot weather that I did not like and I had yet to create coping mechanisms for these situations…I was 8 years old! This moment has stayed with me for life, and I suppose that ever since I have held a guilt over my behaviours, and felt that I needed to punish myself for all my downfalls.
Following this holiday, I was made to go to counselling that felt like a cruel punishment. To me, I felt that it confirmed that I was ruining my family. I was totally out of my depth and alone. I was an outcast. A problem. I was causing trouble. I was a pain in the arse.
No child should ever have to feel this way. No child should feel alone. This is why it is so important to know how to support a child with depression. Through my experiences, I have learned what to give my future children in terms of emotional and mental support, from their birth.
How to support your child, particularly those with mental illnesses
– give them love and ensure that they know they are loved. Tell them often
– give them hugs and physical contact so that they feel your love in a deeper way
– show them patience
– be understanding
– encourage alone time as well as socialising with others. It is so important that they are happy in their own company
– teach them to be brave and strong
– ensure they know who they truly are, at the core
– teach them to be kind to themselves
– teach them to love themselves and be proud of what they see in the mirror. Tell them often what you love about their physical appearance, for example my freckles were always something I felt insecure about from a young age, and positive reinforcement would ensure I felt comfortable in my own skin
– create a relationship in which they can talk to you openly and honestly without judgement
– support them
– ask them if they’re ok – ask them often, and know if they mean it
– sympathise and empathise
– encourage them to talk, not just to you but to other people
– let them explore what they enjoy, and what they don’t
– do things with them and try different activities. Explore their hobbies and get involved
– show them that they are important
– don’t push your opinions on to them
– don’t argue in front of them, ever. This is so damaging!
It’s not easy being a parent. You’re not handed an instruction manual, neither are you given all the answers as soon as your child is born. Despite this, you have a responsibility to ensure your child is happy, and grows up knowing they are loved, feeling secure in themselves. If I could have told my parents this, if I understood what I needed from them, perhaps I would have turned out differently.
If you aren’t getting what you need from your parents, I would implore you to sit and talk to them. I wish I had. I wish I had told them what I needed, what I was lacking, and what they did that destroyed me. I wish I asked them to be patient, and be kind. I wish I asked them to not judge me.
I think the most important thing to remember is that being a parent doesn’t make you perfect, and doesn’t make you know all the answers. Where there is love, there will be a willingness to learn what each other needs, and an openness to giving it. So by asking for the support we need, we’re one step closer to getting it.
I would love to hear your advice for parents with children with mental health, or your experiences with your parents not understanding your mental health. It is a subject very close to my heart.