How Much Should My Daughter Know About Her Grandma’s Mental Health Issues?

I believe in being honest, but this topic is confusing and scary even for me.

March 21, 2017
grandma playing with granddaughter outside
Uwe Krejci/ Getty

When it comes to answering difficult questions from our children, my wife and I so far have made honesty our goal, as opposed to protection. It hasn’t always been easy—and we haven’t always been successful. (Case in point: Santa. I enjoy the delight our 6-year-old daughter, Aki, gets out of opening her presents from the big red guy, and I'm not looking forward to bursting her bubble.)

But Christmas lies aside, we’ve fielded plenty of uncomfortable queries: about where babies are from, why the chicken on her plate is called the same thing as the bird on a farm, and where grandma and grandpa’s moms and dads are. I believe that trusting children helps them learn and grow, and no truth we’ve told her has ruined her yet. It hasn't been easy: Aki is a very sensitive child. When we talked about how all creatures die (even grandparents, even parents, yes, even kids eventually, after they grow up) there was a lot of crying, and a lot of consoling. But she handled it.

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Still, there’s one topic that I’m just not sure how, or how much, to share with her: her grandmother’s mental health issues.

A bit of background: My mother has been living with us, in a small separate house on our property, for a couple years. In 2010, before Aki was born, my mom had a breakdown that was brought on by depression that was severe enough to cause hallucinations. She began hearing voices, and over the past seven years she dealt with a wide array of psychoses, as well as losing (and regaining) her ability to feel emotions. 

She was hospitalized several times, and in 2015, after an especially lengthy hospitalization, I went down to Florida where she was living and helped her move up to Pennsylvania, to live with us, in order to support her more easily. She has been doing much, much better since she’s been up here, but she still struggles. And while Aki hasn’t yet asked about any of this yet, I know that, at some point, she will. 

Related: 7 Mental Health Benefits Of Being Outside

Diseases do not define a person. My mom is a kind, funny, caring woman, and she’s been a positive influence in both of my daughters’ lives. Once a week, Aki has “Grandma Night,” where my mom picks her up from school, and they eat dinner and spend the evening together. My mom is a good grandmother.

But she is also still wrestling with depression, as well as hearing voices that, while managed, can sometimes get loud and annoying. And she’s on a host of medications that can make her jumpy, or lethargic, or moody. There are constant adjustments, struggles, and occasional crises. 

My mom and I have always tried to be honest with one another, and these days, we talk alot about how she’s doing. Some of these conversations have been more difficult and scary for me than any I’ve had to have with Aki, not least because depression and mental health issues have hereditary connections that I don't fully understand.  

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But my daughter is a canny kid. She hears us talking, and I know it’s filtering in. She hasn’t asked me—or her grandmother, or her mom—about any of this yet. It may not have occurred to her that any of it is unusual, but some day it will.

And she’ll ask me something—just one question at first, about how or why my mom acts differently, or needs so many doctors, or so much medicine. When she does, my goal is to be open and encouraging, to answer her questions without shrouding my mom’s condition in shame, and to remind Aki of the wonderful qualities that are as much a part of my mom as her limitations. I don’t know if I’ll be able to fully allay my daughter’s concerns when they finally surface—I have so many myself—but I’m confident that as long as I’m honest, this will be just the beginning of talks that the three of us can continue to have, together.

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