Eavesdropping slightly and picking up on small bits of a conversation, I overheard a child a few days ago telling her parents that she felt anxious. Unfortunately I didn’t stick around long enough to hear what this little girl, no older than 7 years of age, was anxious about. I did however, hear her father dismiss her concerns, telling her “oh you’ll be fine”, and trying to move the conversation onwards.
This rang all too true to me. My parents didn’t understand me and my struggles. They didn’t understand the fight that I had going on in my head because they couldn’t physically see it, and I was too young to articulate it efficiently enough for them to really hear my cries for help. Now, in this snippet of conversation I cannot say that this young girl’s parents dismissed her fears entirely, they may well sit at home with her for hours every night listening to her worries, comforting her and talking to her. All this conversation did is spark up memories for me of feeling like an alien in my own home for having all of these thoughts that nobody else around me appeared to be thinking. I felt totally alone, scared of my own thoughts and emotions and afraid of being dismissed and shut down should I open my mouth to attempt to communicate.
I was made to feel, whether intentionally or not, that I was “bad”. I was a bad child because I caused disruption. I was a nuisance. I was an anomaly in my family. I was an “attention seeker”. I was a pain.
What they really could never understand, because I was too young to communicate it, was that my core was dying. The light inside me was barely even on. At 8 years old I didn’t want to live. This is not what any 8 year old should feel. I was losing at a battle that I didn’t know I was fighting, and that I didn’t have the weapons for. And nobody could help me, because nobody asked me how they could, nobody understood, and nobody seemed to care.
I think that when depression and anxiety shows its head in young children, parents are not very accepting of this as a diagnosis. They do not want to even fathom the thought that their child may be depressed or have mental illness. Perhaps they do not see children’s brains as being capable of thinking the complex things that depression forces upon your brain.
The truth is, depression and anxiety is even scarier when you are young. You don’t understand. You can’t explain. You can’t escape.
Children can be sad, they can have depression, they can have panic attacks, they can be anxious.
I want parents to understand the signs of depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses in their children and realise that just because it is living inside a smaller body and a smaller brain, does not mean it is any less real. Acting out, lashing out, refraining from eating or eating too much, crying, bullying, being a victim, self harming, low self esteem, panic attacks etc. These are signs we need to be looking for. We need to be acknowledging the problem, and preventing long term scars.
“Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older.”
Hans Selye (1907-1982)
When I become a parent, I will remember all that I went through as a child, and make it my priority to prevent my child from bearing the scars that I had to from 8 years of age.
The stressors in a child’s life may be different to that of an adult, but the impact of stress, anxiety and depression can be just as loud in a child’s brain.
If I could give my parents any advice for all those years ago, I would have told them to listen to me, talk to me, don’t ignore the signs, don’t underestimate the power of my mind, and don’t let me suffer in silence. Don’t make me feel bad, for I can’t help it. Don’t make me pay for this, as it is not my fault. Hold my hand, and guide me into a better life.
Whatever you believe about the origin of stress, anxiety and depression, alongside all mental illness, you cannot deny their impact upon an individuals life, just because they are invisible to the physical eye. And if you don’t believe that children can be depressed…think again. It’s scarier, and they need you more!