One of the topics readers most often ask me to write about is anxiety and mental health—both our own and that of our kids. This week’s Parental Advisory question mirrors a common “what if” concern among parents:
My son is only two, but I worry so much. Both sides of our family have mental illness (and I have depression and anxiety), so I worry that either A) he’ll be diagnosed with something—and then how do I help him through that or B) he’ll be “normal” but my anxieties and depression will be behaviour he mimics or adopts.
How should I navigate this?
To start with, I want to say that you are not alone and your concerns are understandable. There are plenty of people out there right now who are reading your question and nodding emphatically along with you. And that is a sentiment that was immediately echoed by Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist who specialises in the treatment of adolescents, when I reached out for her opinion on your question. The first thing she said in response was, “Let’s applaud this [parent] who is being proactive; that’s a really lovely thing [they are] doing and I’d just like to validate [their] concerns.”
You’re right; mental illness often does have a genetic component and having a history of mental illness on both sides of his family is likely to increase your son’s risk for developing a mental health disorder himself. So, let’s address your “A” question first: If he is diagnosed with a disorder, how will you help him through it?
Of course you hope to never see your child suffer with a mental health disorder, but if he does, you will help him through it the same way you would help him through a chronic physical illness or a learning disability or any other fundamentally challenging, on-going hurdle he may encounter in his life. That is, with love, support and all the best doctors, specialists and resources you can find. If he is diagnosed with a mental health disorder, you will educate yourself about it and you—along with the professionals in your corner—will be a support and a guide for him.
To start with, Greenberg recommends focusing on doing your best to provide as supportive and calm an atmosphere as possible in the home: “The operative word is ‘calm,’” she says, “because any type of mental health problem gets worse when a child is in a volatile … family situation.”
One vital—and challenging—component of what you’re facing, though, is to try not to give in to an assumption that he will have a mental illness. It would be easy (and understandable) to start to look at many of his behaviours through that mental health lens and reach conclusions that aren’t necessarily accurate. To avoid this, Greenberg suggests learning what is developmentally appropriate for each age as your son grows.
“[They] can check in with [their] paediatrician if [they] think something is a problem or is not developmentally appropriate,” she says. “Most little kids do have problems regulating their emotions, so [they] need to know at what point there should be an intervention.”
Now for the “B” part of your question: What if your child doesn’t have a mental health disorder but “mimics or adopts” the anxiety and symptoms of depression he witnesses from you in the home? Greenberg and I agreed that the best way you can avoid him adopting any negative behaviours is by modelling what self-care can and should look like. In other words, make taking care of yourself a top priority. Caring for your son’s parent is also a form of caring for him.
And one last thing to be cognisant of is the language you use about mental health, particularly while your son is young and still figuring out who he is and how he fits into the world. Humans tend to be “labellers,” collecting labels that define ourselves and others, and those labels can impact what we believe to be true about ourselves. That’s not to say we shouldn’t talk to our kids about mental health and mental illness in age-appropriate ways, but we can focus on doing so in a way that empowers, Greenberg says.
“Kids need a vocabulary that is empowering,” she tells me. “Instead of saying something like, ‘I’m anxious about the situation,’ you can say something like, ‘I’m going to be brave here.’”
It’s a subtle change but one that focuses less on the negative feeling and more on the coping skills or strategies you have at your disposal.