Yesterday I collapsed in a heap of tears of my kitchen floor. Yesterday my daughter was home, watching me as I cried. Yesterday my daughter asked, “is sad?” Yesterday, through my tears, I froze because yesterday I had to explain to my daughter mommy’s depression. Yesterday I had to try and tell a toddler what I still cannot tell adults.

How do you explain depression to a 2-year-old? Should you explain depression to a 2-year-old?

Last night I scoured the Internet for answers. Last night I scoured the Internet for age appropriate language on mental health, for an explanation I could offer. But in that moment “night” was too many hours away — the Internet was miles away — and it was just me and her. She wanted to hear me; she wanted to know what I had to say, and she wanted to know what was wrong. And it was in that moment I remembered an amazing conversation I had with several men and women on the subject of mental health:

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“Mommy is sad because Mommy has a boo-boo.” I pointed to my head. “It’s not your fault. Mommy loves you. Mommy just hurts.”

I watched her little mind work. I saw her gaze shift to the side and then back to me. I watched her small pink lips purse as she struggled to find not the right words but any words. I wondered if it made sense. I wondered if I made sense.

“Boo-boo?” she asked, and pointed to her own head. Her fingers getting lost in a sea of blonde baby curls.

“Yes. Mommy has a boo-boo.”

With that my daughter ran to my side, arms outstretched, and hugged me — her chunky little arms wrapped around my shoulder and the tips of her fingers grazed my neck. “Kiss?”

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“Sure baby. Mommy would love a kiss.”

She offered a peck which, at her age, is a meeting of foreheads and then ran away giggling and prompting me to follow.

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Since that time the discussion hasn’t come up again, but I know it will. So while I have yet to really delve into this conversation with my kiddo, here are a few things I plan to say:

  1. Mommy has a boo-boo/Mommy is sick/Mommy has an illness: The exact wording will change dependent on her age, but I want to explain to her that Mommy is sick. I won’t share the science behind it because, well, I still don’t comprehend it all. But I want her to know that it’s my illness that makes me sad, not her. Mommy’s illness makes her mad, not her. Mommy’s brain isn’t working right and, sometimes, that makes Mommy not work right. But it’s okay. Mommy will be okay and sometimes I just have to cry to feel better. Sometimes tears are a good thing.
  2. Mommy’s illness isn’t your fault: It is so easy for children to blame themselves when their parents are upset. Sure, I could pretend I will be perfect all of the time. I could pretend that my depression will never affect my relationship with my daughter, but I would be doing just that: pretending. So instead of having this conversation in the midst of a depressive episode, I plan to start a dialogue about depression — aka “Mommy’s boo-boo” — with my daughter. I will start small, start with the little things like telling her I am sick, but as she gets older and wants to know more, I will share more. I will let her know it is a part of who I am. I will let her know it isn’t her fault. I will let her know what I know, and how I feel. I will let her in and try, desperately try, not to push her away. Does saying this mean I can be a jerk? No. But it does allow us to have an honest conversation which I can only hope will allow her to accept my apologies if — when — I screw up.
  3. You can’t fix Mommy but doctors and medicine can: My daughter, bless her heart, wants to make everyone feel better. I kiss her boo-boos and hold her when she cries, and now at two, she does the same for me, and many of her friends. While it is sweet, I do not want her to ever — and I mean ever — think fixing me is her responsibility. And so I will tell her that. I will explain to her that I am seeing doctors to help me feel better. I will explain to her that I am taking medicine to make me feel better. And I will explain to her that just as I cannot cure her ear infections, only a doctor and antibiotics can, she cannot cure my depression.
  4. Mommy loves you, always: Most important, I will tell her this. Children need to know they are loved; they need to hear they are loved. With depression, children may feel unloved because mommy is crying or daddy won’t get out of bed. So as difficult as it is sometimes, and even though it tends to make me cry more, I always tell my daughter I love her, in the midst of a depressive episode or not. I tell her I love her, and she is my world. I tell her because actions do speak louder than words, and sometimes my actions suck. But I tell her because she deserves it. She deserves an explanation and an apology. She deserves a hug and kiss and an “I love you.” Because I do. I always do.

The point is not what words you use or what explanation you offer, but that you say something, anything. Yes, depression is very difficult to explain but it becomes all the more difficult to understand if it is never discussed, and this is especially true for children. (Think back to your own childhood. What did you do when you didn’t know something? You made up a story; you filled in the blanks with your own answers.) And while I am not a mental health professional I can only imagine how scary those made up answers could become. So own it, talk about it, and use it as a catalyst for fostering empathy and understanding — even at this young age.

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Kimberly Zapata is the creator of Sunshine Spoils Milk, a blog dedicated to mental health and mommyhood. When she is not working, writing, or keeping her daughter’s fingers out of light sockets, she can be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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