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Kaleidoscope of the Heart: Tell your children your mental illness isn't their fault

Rika Kayama

From time to time I get asked by women with depression how best to explain their condition to their children. Unable to do housework, they lie around, and their children tell them to get up or seem to worry themselves into crying about their mother's lack of energy. For those situations, I usually give them the following advice:

    Be honest and talk to them about how your condition is not at its best at the moment, that you can't really do housework, your doctor told you to take it easy and other struggles. Besides facing the issue head-on, I tell them there is one more thing I want them to add. To say to their kids, "It isn't your fault that I am sick, and if I take a bit of time to rest, I will get better, and what's more, even when I am sleeping, I love you."

    When their parents get sick or aren't feeling very well, children tend to think, "Is this my fault?" more than adults may realize. Especially those children in the lower grades of elementary school may feel, "Because I wasn't good and got punished, my mom got sick." There are children who may continue to think and worry about things like this all alone. So I tell my patients that they absolutely must add to their explanation of their illness to their children that it is in no way their fault.

    On top of that, there are also cases where a parent must be certain to explain, "While I can't do work around the house right now, that doesn't mean that I don't love you," or the child will not understand. So children don't think, "My mom didn't make me a meal. She must hate me," I want parents to say, "While I have to rest right now, I love you." That will put the child at ease, and they may even end up trying to help with household chores.

    Actually, this is really something that I would like the child's father to explain, but there are some men who unfortunately do not want to accept the fact that their wife is ill. Once, when I heard that an acquaintance's wife was dealing with depression, I said, "That must be tough." He laughed it off, replying, "She must be imagining it." When I then said, "Please make an effort to understand her illness and support her properly," he looked lost. He was probably feeling anxious about her illness as well.

    When a member of the family becomes sick, it's only natural to worry. But it's exactly during those times that families can come together, lend each other their strength and support each other. That's the wonder of family. I think it would be best if a person who has become ill can clearly say, "I want you to do this," or "I can't do this right now," without having to apologize too much for their sickness. Not blaming yourself, not holding anything back from one another, but still accepting the situation is the way for a family to get through any illness together. (By Rika Kayama, psychiatrist)

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