"What I'll tell my children about my self-harm scars."

I should have been prepared for the question, but I wasn’t: “Mama, what are those scars?”

Trigger warning: This post deals with issues of eating disorders and self-harm and some readers may find it triggering.

Life is full of difficult conversations. Many you anticipate and ready yourself for. Others you simply can’t prepare, they just strike you in the midst of an ordinary day.

I was sidelined by one of these the other day. I should have been ready, I knew it was coming. Hell, I have had 15 years to prepare. A lifetime. But it hit me like a truck.

“Mama, what are those scars?”

Read more: “How the voice inside my head became an eating disorder.”

I looked and saw someone else’s body. I saw a victory so long overcome and so many years in the past that now I rarely even give it a passing thought.

I ducked and weaved and dodged the question. I kissed my dark-eyed son and muttered a non-answer of accidents and pain long, long ago. I sent him off to find his brother and sister and hurry them for dinner. I made him laugh at how our dog was sleeping soundly, snoring like the old-aged pensioner he is.

And then I breathed. I stopped and thought, one day I will have to talk to them about this – and it could be that ‘one day’ is coming sooner than I think.

How do mothers talk to their children of mental illness and eating disorders which took place in a different time? How do mothers answer questions about self-harm, anxiety or depression?

I want to tell them that a lifetime ago I was a different person at war with my body and angry at it. That I struck out in the only way I knew how but that after many years I won, and that now I am me and that is all that matters.

I know I am not the first mother to ever have these conversations, and I know I am not alone in having been through this, but I am alone in this dialogue with my kids.

Shauna today.

No-one can have it for me. But I don’t know what they need to hear.There is a temptation to fob them off with a lie about an accident, but it’s an easy way out isn’t it? I know that my children’s feelings are more complicated than that and there will come a time when they need to be validated.


But I am frightened of what to say, scared of their reaction, anxious I will tell them too much, or too little.

I know I can tell them that eating disorders affect nearly one million Australians. I can tell them that 15% of women will experience an eating disorder in their lives, and that 25% of people with bulimia and anorexia self-harm.

I can tell them that eating disorders are the third most common chronic illness in young females and that depression is experienced nearly three-quarters of people with an eating disorder.

But these are just numbers.

What they need to hear is why.

Read more: My mother, her bulimia and me.

The temptation to bury your head in the sand about issues like mental illness often stems from the fact that those who care about you are always, in one way or another, concerned. No matter how long ago your struggle was.

And the problem is this makes talking about it one of the most difficult things – the thought of having to reassure your family and friends that your recovery is a permanent state. Of having to convince them that the past is often actually just that – the past.

So what am I going to tell my kids?

Honestly I don’t know. It will depend on the age they are when they ask again and the circumstances they are in.

I do know that I can tell them that I love them so much it leaves me breathless.

I can tell them that their very presence in my day gives me more strength than I have ever had in my life.  I can tell them that if they ever felt like they were struggling or needed help I would guide them and help them and fight for them, like my family did with me.

I can tell them that I often feel like I wasted years of my life in an endless struggle and that if I had my time back I would get help sooner.

But most of all, I can tell them that who I was in the past led me to them and for that I would not change anything.

If you need help please speak to someone. You are never alone.

Lifeline   13 11 14

Kid’s Helpline 1800 55 1800

The Butterfly Foundation 1800 33 4673

Do you have experience of broaching such a difficult topic with children?  What would you say?