Living with mental illness: Everyone learns something valuable when parents teach children about mental health

Fiona Kennedy on the important role of mental health for both parents and children

Baby, saved, Dublin, Killiney, pharmacy, nurse, breathing, CPR, Crumlin Children's Hospital, Pat Murray

File photo of a mother holding the hand of a new baby | Image: Dominic Lipinski / PA Wire/Press Association Images

As a parent, I think one of my biggest fears is the impact that the difficulties I have had with my mental health could potentially have on my kids.

I have a boy and a girl, aged eight and six, and have been trying to get a handle on borderline personality disorder and depression for their entire lives. The fear that I could have damaged them in some way, the guilt that I feel on a day I’m not doing well; it has quite literally kept me awake at night and at times it makes me feel sick to my stomach.

On the flip side, that guilt and fear has also served to make me really aware of what I want for my kids in the future. If I can teach them to manage their emotions, to understand why they react to things as they do, to be self-sufficient and resilient, then I will be happy that I have done a good job.

Over the last eight years, I have learned a lot about myself, my place in the world, how I relate to the world, how I relate to other people, and what is most important to me. I have come to realise that for me, peace of mind and feeling connected is the holy grail. It is not stuff, it is not the size of my bank balance or the make of my car - which is just as well as neither are all that spectacular - it is how I feel.

Someone asked me recently what a good day for me looks like, and the answer is really, really simple. A good day for me is one in which I am calm, in which I feel in control, but not that I am clinging on for dear life. A day in which I relate well to my kids, and am able to do what I need to do.

At the moment those are very small things, relatively speaking; it is being able to get my kids out of the house in the morning without a fight, get the homework done without stress, or if there is stress, that I can manage it and help them through it. It is spending time with my kids, at their level, in their world, without bringing my expectations into the situation.

I had a really lovely reminder of what that looks like this week. My boy has been quite anxious of late, and I am working hard to help him manage that. One thing I know that helps is simply spending time with him, doing what he wants, at his pace.

This week, it was a walk in the woods. It didn’t start out that way; I left the house with an agenda. We were going to do a good fast walk and get some exercise for both us and the dogs. I was focusing on the end goal of getting home knowing I had achieved something and ticked a couple of boxes on the list – dogs walked, check, fresh air for my boy, check – you get the idea. But he wanted to explore some, so we did that instead. We ended up being outside for an hour, mooching through a small wooded area near our house, just chatting and spending time in each other’s company.

Image: Pine woods on Wicklow Mountains. A dense pine wood covers the side of a mountain near Glendalough, Co Wicklow. Photo. /

Technically, we didn’t achieve anything, but emotionally, it felt so important. I felt a really strong connection with my son again, something that it’s too easy to lose track of in the list of 'shoulds' that are part of everyday life. He looked relaxed. He looked happy. My focus was not on what I needed to do next, or what I felt I should be doing instead, it was on us, on him.

I came home feeling 100 times better than I would have done had we done our power walk, because beneficial and all as that would have been, this was different. I wasn’t passing time with him, I was spending time with him, and I think there’s an important distinction there.

I regularly (several times on a daily basis) tie myself up in knots about where I’m falling down as a mother. I second guess every single decision I make. If my kids are anxious, or stressed, or angry, I own it. I make it my fault. I’m working hard to remember that this does none of us any favours at all.

They have to learn what different emotions feel like: how to identify them, how to understand them - and that includes the difficult ones. My job is to help them in that, and if needs be, show them better ways of coping than throwing a tantrum or giving up on something in frustration.

If I can take any positive from the chaos of the last few years, it is knowing what is important for me and my family. I want my kids to feel that they are enough, that they matter and that they are loved. I want them to have empathy, to feel not only comfortable, but safe and happy in their own company. I want them to be able to handle the inevitable dramas that life will throw at them without resorting to the sort of self-destructive coping mechanisms that I relied on for so much of my life.

If they have all that, then it has been worth it. Every single second of the pain and angst and trauma has been worth it.