Today I wanted to focus on mental health in children. Why? Because today is my son’s 9th birthday, and he suffers from anxiety.
That’s right. Just turned 9-years-old, and already diagnosed as a child with anxiety. I’ve been taking him to doctors since he was seven, so for me, this is not news.
What might come as a surprise is that anxiety and mental health in children, more specifically, children under 10, is far more common than you’d think.
Allow me to take a step back, and discuss the reasons I knew my son was struggling, and how I knew he needed medical attention.
First, my son was the greatest baby/toddler ever. Yes, I’m biased, but when I talked to other new mothers about their struggles, it became apparent that I didn’t have any.
He was a good eater, he slept through the night since a very, very young age, he was always happy, he rarely cried, and he was content to play by himself.
He was super affectionate, loved everyone he met, very independent, and not clingy at all.
The hardest thing for me as a new mom was that he wasn’t clingy. I wanted him to be attached to me, but he was content with everyone.
In a nutshell, he was an easygoing kid.
From One Extreme to Another
Once he started going to school, his behaviour began to change, and the attitude came. It wasn’t the worst; it was just a bit of push back that we weren’t used to seeing.
We expected it. The older they get, and the more people they meet, the more they are influenced.
By the time he got to grade one, the tantrums started. Tantrums were new to us. I know it’s par for the course with children, but my son just wasn’t the tantrum guy.
Remember, he was affectionate, happy, and easy going. If you took a toy away from him, he’d just go and find another.
Grade one was a game changer. Not only did we have the new (not so nice) attitude, but now we had to deal with tantrums.
Two things I learned really quickly: hungry or tired.
I could either feed him or put him to bed, and he’d be angelic again in a heartbeat. This, I feel, is still considered ‘normal’ behaviour, and par for the course.
His tantrums escalated.
Every day became a fight with him, and I couldn’t always feed him or make him take a nap. Sometimes he wouldn’t eat. Most times he wouldn’t sleep.
The tantrums turned violent, and sometimes he’d run away.
We’d be shopping, just me and the kids – because at this point, I have two young kids, my son and my daughter who is 21 months younger – and what starts as a nice time in the store, quickly spirals out of control.
I’d take them to Wal-Mart because we could get our groceries there, and if they were well behaved, we could visit the toy section, and/or McDonalds. One stop shop.
They’d behave during the grocery time knowing they’d be rewarded.
When Tantrums Are Actually Mental Health in Children
One day, I remember both children behaving very well and so I offered to buy them each a toy. Just something cheap, not a birthday present equivalent.
Well, my son has trouble with choices. He spent a very long time in the toy section, and I was patient.
I allowed him the time he needed, because I get it. I, too, struggle with choices.
He finally narrowed it down to two small Lego sets. But he couldn’t choose between them.
In order to help, and provide some relief, what I said was “Why don’t we get this one now, and the next time you have a really great day, we can come back and get the other one.”
Enter complete meltdown.
He cries. He screams. He runs.
I have to abandon everything to chase him, and keep in mind, I have a 4-year-old daughter in tow.
He didn’t get far, and I was able to catch him. We go back to the shopping trolley, and I put the Lego in and call it a day.
He starts yelling, “I don’t want the Lego. I don’t deserve it. Put it back.”
This is a nightmare. It’s taking everything in my power not to lose it. I want to cry with him. I have no idea how to handle this situation.
Five minutes earlier, everything was great, now I have a screaming kid who thinks he doesn’t deserve to have toys.
There is nothing I can say to calm him down. He argues it. Instead, I tell him the Lego is for me because I really want it.
I tell him I would be sad if I had to put it back, because I was hoping to build it. Because I love Spiderman.
He calms a bit. I think this is him trying to believe me. We begin walking to checkout, my daughter sitting in the front of the cart, and my son holding on to the side.
He’s still crying, just not as loud.
Next Level Anxiety
As we’re paying, I notice him scratching his hand. Aggressively. His crying gets louder and now he’s hurting himself too.
Once again, I abandon everything.
I don’t care about the judgment. I don’t care about the lineups. I don’t care that I have to pay for the stuff in my cart.
My son’s health comes first and everything else can wait.
I grab his hands, and I hug him from behind. He tries to fight me, but he knows he can’t win so he submits. I just continue to hug him with all my might.
When he settles a bit, I say, “It’s ok. You’re not in trouble. You’re allowed to be mad, to be sad, and to be frustrated. You’re allowed to feel. You are not allowed to hurt yourself. Please stop. That hurts me too.”
Still squeezing him in the biggest mother bear hug I can, I allow him to feel and to process.
There’s a solid minute, while I wait for his breathing to steady, and while I ignore the cashier who’s waiting for me to pay.
Finally, my son says, “I’m sorry I hurt you.”
He’s not done being upset or angry, but until that point, he hadn’t realized that he was hurting others with his actions as well.
That’s the last thing he wanted, because he’s still the most affectionate person you’ve ever met.
The rest of that shopping experience was finished with no drama. I paid and we left. The ride home was silent, as I let my son continue to process his feelings.
Throughout all of first grade and the summer that followed, we had many moments like this. And it was so trying.
We also had several doctor visits, because I knew that tantrums should not result in one saying, “I don’t deserve to live.”
We saw the family doctor a number of times, but were also referred to child psychologists, and trauma specialists, and you name it, we visited them.
My son was diagnosed (incorrectly) with ADHD, and a symptom of this is anxiety.
I took that diagnosis back to my family doctor and she laughed. I brought workbooks to the teachers to have them assess my son, and they laughed too.
My son has anxiety, yes, but it is not a symptom of ADHD in him. He doesn’t have any issues with attention, or hyperactivity.
Anxiety disorders, and mental health in children, are not easy to diagnose. What’s the difference between a regular tantrum, and a tantrum in kids with a disorder?
Sometimes, the answer is “Mother’s intuition.” This is what, my doctor said, saved my son from harming himself.
Helping kids manage anxiety isn’t easy, and I will talk about this in posts to come.
Getting it diagnosed is easy.
It Takes Love, and Patience, and Knowing Your Child
Trust your gut. I knew that this behaviour was completely abnormal for my son.
He was never like this before, and all of a sudden he had emotions that he couldn’t control, and outbursts regularly.
My piece of advice for parents dealing with this, and how I will wrap up this post, have some patience when it comes to mental health in children.
I could have yelled at my son. I could have put both toys back on the shelf and told him that he gets none. I could have disciplined. I could have punished.
Instead, I chose to show him that he is loved regardless. That he is special, and kind, and wonderful, and deserves love.
He’s a child. And I need to remember that he needs to be reminded of these traits constantly. It’s not something I can say once and hope it sticks.
I show him love when he feels he deserves none. I show him love for no reason at all. I show him love and it makes all the difference.
It’s not easy, but you have to dig deep and have some patience. This is not about you. This is about what your child needs.
Nothing bad can come from showing love and kindness to people.
Splash that in with some patience and understanding, and it will make the world a better place.