Dear Dr Justin,
"My husband has tried to take his own life twice in the past six weeks. He is now in hospital receiving care but I've just told the kids he's dealing with some emotional problems and needs special help. My eldest (11) is not talking, is acting aggressively and last week he vomited for a whole day when he wasn't ‘sick’. My next one (8) is putting on weight at an alarming rate, and my baby (6) is crying and clingy. I’m trying to work full-time, juggle the kids and get my husband the help he needs. How do I help my kids when I’m barely hanging on?"
Talking to your children about the challenges your husband is facing is a daunting task, especially since you have so much to deal with as well. It can be so hard to be strong when you probably feel like falling apart.
Your children's responses to enormous uncertainty are concerning. I am going to suggest five things to work on over the next few weeks. If things do not get better, I strongly recommend that you see your GP for a psychology referral. Sometimes some professional help is essential.
First, get one-on-one
Sit down and talk to each of your children individually about their dad. Talk to them in age-appropriate ways about things. You might say, ‘Dad is not doing well. He is in the hospital so doctors can help him. Right now he needs our love and support.’
I don't recommend telling them what he has done. This will only provoke further anxieties and potentially lead to more problem behaviour. However, your 11-year-old may benefit from more specifics. Beyondblue has staff that can give you advice and support in speaking to him.
Second, empathy is everything
As you interact with your children, show you understand. This is not only while you are having your ‘one-on-one’, but in all of your interactions. Point out the feelings you're noticing. Label them. Validate them. Let the children know their emotions are a normal part of being human. You might say, ‘You're feeling really anxious right now.’ Or, ‘With dad being gone so much, it's gotten you worried.’
See their emotions as a chance to connect. Then chat through those emotions, and problem solve together.
Third, remember you can't ‘fix’ this
It would be nice to click your fingers and make it all go away. Obviously that is unrealistic. The thing that is most likely to improve things for your children is your availability for them, and your understanding of their feelings. Spending time with them and building on your relationship will have the strongest impact. Of course, this is hard for you with all of the burdens you already carry. But it is the one thing that can help the children keep it together.
Fourth, express gratitude
This may sound trite, but there is an abundance of evidence that gratitude can build resilience, health and wellbeing. A 2008 study showed that children who were asked to list five things they were grateful for every day were much more satisfied with life and happier in school then kids who were asked to list five hassles, or five things that happened to them during the day.
Finding things to be grateful for and talking about them can make a big difference. It expands our thinking, helps us see beyond the narrow path in front of us and allows us to see options we previously hadn’t considered. While it may be difficult for you, it is important that you also model this behaviour. Try having ‘grateful conversations’, where you touch briefly on the things you are grateful for that day. It is a small thing that can make a big difference.
Fifth, communicate through journaling
This may be a wonderful release for your children. Buy them a little journal. Tell them you would like them to write in each day about how they are feeling. Let them know you'll be reading it and writing back to them. The things your children will disclose will give you valuable insights. It will change the way you communicate. You will begin to really see the world through their eyes. Never criticise their words. Instead, listen carefully and show you understand.
Children need to believe that the world is safe and predictable. They develop confidence and curiosity when they feel secure and know they can rely on their parents. Right now, as hard as it is for you, they need you to shepherd them through these dark, difficult days.
Find ways to speak positively. Engage whatever friends and family you can to support you, cook meals, help with the children and so on. Ask them to only speak kind words about your husband. As best you can, keep to your normal routine. And take small opportunities to have fun. The more normal life is, and the more supported your children feel, the better they'll fare.