Establishing Open Communication With Our Kids Is Vital To Their Mental Health

by Jennifer Rosen-Heinz
Originally Published: 
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My biggest fear as a mom — one that I talk about only seldom and only with my husband — is that I have somehow unwittingly passed along my mental health issues to my children. That there is some ticking time bomb inside of them that I have planted.

I often wonder, how can I, as a mom, make sure that when my children are bullied, when they make mistakes, when they feel sad or alone, that they come to me or another helper? How can I reassure them that there is comfort to be found in trusting other people? How do I make sure that they know how to get help?

I try to remind myself that genetics are not destiny. That nurture augments nature. Still, I’m constantly striving to instill in my kids if not an emotional inoculation (were it that something like that existed!), at least a set of tools or a framework of understanding to help them cope.

It might sound morbid, but that’s not my intention. Actually, in the most emphatic way possible, I don’t think it is morbid. It’s the opposite of morbid. It is about a hope not built with feathers (as Emily Dickinson coined it), but rather, a hope made with bricks. A hope that is grounded and sturdy. A hope to build on.

A Theory of the Mind

I was one of those people who loved therapy. I mean, I didn’t love having to need therapy, but I loved having a place to go to work through things. To take all the scary thoughts, the strange patterns that would develop in my head, and bring them to an expert who could help me make sense of them. I often joke to this day that if I could, I would have therapy every damn week.

What therapy taught me was that I am not my experience. I am not what has happened to me. I am also not my thoughts. I can actually change my thoughts if I don’t like them or if the circumstances by which they entered my mind are no longer reality.

As a child, experience is a kind of story we live. Whether by some factory default setting or whether shaped by habit, we don’t have a sense of control — not just of our lives, but also about how we react. That’s why I try to teach my kids theory of the mind. I talk with my kids a lot about emotions. Emotions can give us important information that sometimes our logical brains don’t pick up on. On the other hand, emotions can sometimes be a reaction to atmospherics or lead us to jump to conclusions based on too little information or our interpretation of erroneous information.

Why am I teaching my kids this abstract concept? Because I want them to both trust their brains and have a healthy sense of skepticism about their minds as well. Far too many people on this earth do not understand this about themselves or others, and the costs are high. Look at the amount of damage disordered thinking and lack of coping skills can wreak. Look at how many people use destructive behaviors against themselves and others.

Helping kids understand that their thoughts and reactions are not always “right,” and that those of others are also not always “right” or “wrong,” can go a long way to helping them right their own boats, should they get too far away from shore.

Talking Always Helps

I don’t know if this is universally true, but I’ve staked my claim on it being true. It’s okay for kids to want to keep things to themselves sometimes — their imaginative worlds are magical in part because of their secrecy. (That doesn’t mean that I don’t love overhearing their play — the singing, the talking, even the sound effects. I’m going to be a sad woman the day that my last child gives this up.)

But I don’t want my kids to ever feel so ashamed of something that they feel like they can’t talk about it with me, or if not me, with someone else. Shame likes it when we hide it in dark corners where it can cast long shadows. Shedding light on those dark corners — by talking about it with someone else — helps us ensure that irrational fear doesn’t take over the microphone.

Somewhere I heard the saying “We don’t do secrets in this family. We do surprises, but we don’t do secrets.” It’s an underpinning of a technique I’ve learned to help kids feel empowered to keep their own bodies safe and be able to choose to tell a trusted adult if they feel uncomfortable with something.

I model this with my kids, usually at night after story time when we are cuddling. We talk about books, we talk about their day, and we do emotional check-ins. Nighttime is a natural time to make sure there are no monsters hanging underneath the bed, whether literal or metaphorical.

Old War Stories

And as tough as it is to do, I share with my kids (in age-appropriate ways) things that happened to me when I was a kid — times I messed up, times I felt alone. I ask them what advice they would have given me. They love to hear that I was not an angel as a kid. That I spit my vitamins out every day behind the couch for a year until my mom found them. That in fourth grade, I constantly got in trouble because I would not stop talking in class.

I even told my son about the time when I stole some earrings from my mom’s jewelry box to give to my best friend, got caught, was banned by her mom from seeing her again, and then got bullied by the girl and her friend every time I got off the school bus in the afternoon. I never told my mom about the bullying because I felt ashamed and as though I deserved it somehow.

My son delighted hearing the story: How could I have been so bad? And yet, I told him, I hadn’t intended to be bad. I had wanted to be loved, appreciated. I ended up hurting other people, and getting hurt myself, and feeling alone.

The Moral of the Story

The moral of the story is that there is no moral. People act in ways that are good and in ways that are bad. Our feelings are a great source of strength, and they can also be our undoing. But having someone else to listen to us, a toolbox full of ideas about how our minds work, and personal and narrative experience can help our kids know that they are not alone. If someone isn’t listening, find someone else who can. If we make a mistake, we are not doomed to repeat it. We love each other not in some perfect way, but imperfectly — with our imperfections and a will to do better, feel better, and move on.

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