As someone who has battled an anxiety and panic disorder since childhood, one of my top concerns when I started having children was if I would pass on my disorder to my kids. I wouldn’t wish chronic panic and anxiety on anyone, and the idea that my kids might have a propensity toward it…well, it made my already anxious self that much more terrified.
Over a decade into this parenting thing, I will say that, for the most part, my fears were for naught. My children do share some of my tendencies toward anxiety, but it turns out that your offspring truly are their own people. And while genetics and learned behavior play a part in how they turn out, it’s not everything.
Most importantly, just being aware of your own mental health struggles allows you to be proactive about recognizing and seeking treatment for any issues that might arise in your children.
Tips for Parenting With Mental Health Challenges
Here are some tips that have helped me navigate the waters of parenting as a person with mental health issues:
1. Be open about your mental health with your child
It may feel counterintuitive at first, but speaking openly about your mental health issues is an invaluable way to mitigate the risks of passing on your issues to your child, by modeling a proactive approach to mental health care. For example, if you are in a depressive funk, simply saying “Mommy is feeling very sad right now” allows your child to see that it’s okay to talk about difficult feelings, and that there is no shame in depression, anxiety, or whatever intense feelings people experience.
Adding on something like, “It’s something that Mommy is working on, and not your fault” makes it clear that these things can be dealt with, and removes blame from your child (children will often internalize a parent’s mood, even if they don’t say so). Down the road, if your child does experience mental health issues, the knowledge that it’s acceptable to talk about these sorts of things will go a long way.
2. Model good coping strategies
My children know I am in therapy. They know my daily exercising and meditation sessions are mandatory ways that I practice wellness. In fact, my anxiety-prone child has started practicing mediation with me!
As a parent, I have found it even more important to keep up with my mental health self-care routines — not just so I can make it through the intense years of parenting — but also so I can show my kids that taking care of your mental health is as important as eating, sleeping, or going for a check-up at the doctor.
3. Passing on your mental health condition to your child is not inevitable
It’s not totally irrational that those of us with mental health issues fear passing on our issues to our kids. After all, there is a genetic component to many mental health disorders. But just because your child might inherit your disorder doesn’t mean that they will.
There are so many factors that go into how your child turns out, and though you don’t have control of all of them, you do have the power to create the most nurturing and supportive environment you can.
4. Don’t punish yourself when your mental health gets the better of you
All of us with mental health issues have our bad days. And I’m going to be perfectly honest with you: sometimes being a parent can trigger mental health issues in big ways. But that is why it is so important to be open about your struggles with your kids (see #1) and always be gentle with yourself when your issues come up.
Your children don’t need a perfect parent: they need one who is willing to own their shortcomings, apologize when things go haywire, and make an effort to be the best version of themselves as possible.
5. Having lived through mental health issues gives you an advantage
The fact that you are aware enough of your disorder to own the label — and even read an article about passing on your mental illness to your child! — means that you can use your self-awareness to your advantage. This awareness is one of the key components that can protect your child from the symptoms and detrimental behavior related to your mental health disorder. You may be better equipped to recognize the emerging symptoms of mental health issues in your child, allowing you to promptly get them the help they need.
It’s Natural to Worry, but There are Solutions!
I won’t sugar-coat over the fact that I still get worried sick at times about passing on my mental health struggles to my kids. But even if the worst case scenario emerges, and they struggle with mental health issues as intensely as I have, I don’t regret bringing them into the world. As the years pass, more solutions and support will become available to them should they need.
Children are complex creatures, full of gifts and surprises that you can’t even fathom until you have your own. And as difficult as mental health issues are to live with, they don’t define a person. Remember that your children (and you too!) are more than your genetics, and more than any mental health disorder — and that each of us has more grit and resilience than we realize.