My experience of childhood mental health

clare H

by Anonymous

I’m sat here at gone midnight because again my son can’t sleep. He’s suffering from anxiety and as a result, isn’t settling to stay in his bed. He’s 9 years old, and this has been happening for 6 months. Not on and off for six months. Six months solidly.

My husband and I have been unable to establish the root cause. We were on holiday in the summer, having a lovely time and then the anxiety began. At the time, we simply put it down to being in an unfamiliar bedroom, but it has persisted ever since and has continued to get worse.

We have tried reasoning, we have tried being firm, but mostly we are shattered and are therefore taking the path of least resistance.

There have been lots of attempts to resolve it; a visit to the GP who recommended some chants and a jar by the bed to blow bad dreams into (lasted 2 nights), aromatherapy spray for his pillows (4 nights), ‘sleeping medicine’ (actually children’s multivitamins as we were trying a psychological approach – an impressive 2 weeks), a worry monster (1 night, biggest waste of money to date), and numerous other approaches.

In all honesty, it’s been musical beds, middle of the night negotiations and a fairly heavy sense of frustration. We are all tired, irritable and at a loss as to what to do next.

But this is not just sleeplessness caused by anxiety. If he were lying awake, waiting for sleep to come, that would be frustrating, but I imagine, it would be manageable. It’s anxiety, I would go so far as to say panic. To see and hear your otherwise brave, sociable, well-adjusted child in near tears most nights because he can’t bear the thought of bedtime is heart-breaking. He tells us he’s scared but doesn’t know why (and we have asked, and listened, and questioned, and cajoled), but most upsettingly, he tells us that he’s ashamed of himself for this. But what to do? How can we as his parents, the people he looks to, to solve everything, end his distress?

Having spent hours upon hours reading around the topic, I don’t think we can put it down to ‘being a phase’ anymore. We also have busy and demanding jobs that require us to have at least 4 hours of sleep, the idea of 6 seems like a heady treat!

The National Institute of Mental Health has published a helpful page on its website; Children and Mental Health, Is it just a phase? Two of the first bullet points state:

  • Seek help when a child’s behaviour or emotional difficulties last for more than a few weeks and are causing problems at school, at home, or with friends.
  • Early treatment can help address a child’s current difficulties and can also help prevent more serious problems in the future.

The page also lists the signs to watch out for that suggest the child needs an assessment and some form of intervention.

As a child, I experienced my own mental health issues. I was slightly older than my son is now, about 11 or 12. I started to feel anxious. I’d hide it by being around people and keeping very busy. But it felt like a tidal wave was approaching. I could run, I could hide, but it would find me eventually.  Having a supportive family meant I felt able to be open and share how I was feeling with them. Like my current situation, they too were at a bit of a loss. There was lots of practical reasoning and empathy. 

I remember clearly the night the wave crashed over me. My older sister and I had been home for a few hours and it was early evening, Mum and Dad weren’t far away and we had a number to reach them on. I told my sister I was getting scared.  I can’t remember her reaction. I do remember that feeling of being scared getting worse and worse. I didn’t know where to go or what to do. I remember being on the kitchen floor screaming and hyperventilating, and my parents rushing into a bit of a drama, not knowing what had happened or why.

I can’t remember all the details that followed, it’s all a little bit of a haze now, but I know there was therapy and medication involved. It was a further two years until I felt ‘OK’. However, this was swiftly followed by me becoming scared it was going to happen again. I was scared of being scared. So how did I tackle this? Well, of course, I threw myself into things that I knew I would find frightening as a way of testing if it would come back. I joined a band and played solos on my saxophone, I joined clubs that I know would challenge me and throw a few curve balls that I’d have to navigate, I took the bold decision to go traveling on my own. I imagine you’re reading this and thinking why? The truth is, I believed I had something to prove. Was I cured or could it all come back? Even into my 20’s and early 30’s, I have found myself doing things that were probably to test my metal.

So, as a mum, lying here with my son, I see worryingly similar traits I wonder if it hereditary? Is he scared of being scared? What is going to be the thing that helps him get through this?

Mental health is never straight forward. In an interesting informal chat with a child psychologist recently, in the space of 10 minutes, she suggested the causes might be rooted in separation anxiety – my job is a bit unpredictable, some evenings I’m home, some I’m not and over the years there has been a lot of international travel meaning I wasn’t around for a week at a time at short notice. She also suggested subconscious anxiety about his ability to succeed. He’s recently been told he is dyslexic and the psychologist suggested that he sees me as leading a successful professional life and he has undercurrents of wondering if he will be successful. At this point, it’s worth acknowledging that as parents, we can all blame ourselves and feel guilty. If my son had his way, I would be home 24/7.  That isn’t going to be happening!

All this leaves me with some unresolved questions, as probably most parents of children facing a period of mental ill-health are:

Why is it happening?

Have I/am I contributing to it?

Is it hereditary?

Is this a one-off episode or will his mental ill-health be something that persists?

What can we do to help him right now?

What is the long-term solution?

As it’s Children’s Mental Health Week, I wanted to share our family experience, with my son’s knowledge and agreement. I know we aren’t the only family experiencing this and there’s ‘safety in numbers’ in being open and honest. I have been through a period of poor mental health and I don’t know if I’ll experience that again. I have a child who is suffering and right now, we’re at a loss. I want to normalise the conversation around mental health and break down the stigma. 1 in 4 of us is likely to experience mental ill-health at some point in our lives. We need to be kind, and patient and honest. We need to share our stories so that others can do the same, as early as possible to get help and support. I hope this will enable children and young people to continue to ‘find their brave’.

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