It’s always a wonderful thing to have a successful Short Story that wins or gets selected for a competition. In the Secret Attic Weekly Write last week (week 5) my story was the first selected entry, and I was absolutely thrilled. The story itself, including the difficult content and the timeframe of submission, was probably the most important I’ve entered for critique so far.
It details a short tale of a mother and her son, grappling with his upset over difficult and unusual goings-on at home. Although the idea is complex, it’s by no means unusual, as I’m sure you’ll agree when you read the story (it’s at the bottom of this post if you want to skip forward 😉).
From 7th to 13th February (right now!) in the UK, it’s Childrens Mental Health Week. As a result, I chose to create a story that considers the real, hidden and misunderstood problems children are being left to face right under peoples noses.
I should say it’s unlikely any child gets to this point because the people around them don’t care or are chosing to act with malice. Sometimes it’s just hard to see, difficult for parents and caregivers to translate and/or accept or really well hidden by the child.
Children are just as clever as adults when it comes to covering up their emotions and negative actions. I spend a lot of time covering up my own scars caused by self-harm and self-hatred so that my family don’t have to worry or ask questions about them. Children are capable of doing exactly the same both physically and emotionally.
However, what I’ve mentioned above, the physical reaction and consequent scars of a child sturggling with mental health, is the cherry on top of a huge and multi-layered cake of the problems we’re facing. There is a group of children, hidden in the underbelly of society, whose mental health challenges are being missed. Often their problems, or symptoms, are dismissed because the child is quiet, because their development appears delayed or maybe just because the people around them are too busy trying to give them a perfect life to notice there is a problem.
And just like adults, there isn’t always a trigger for a child to struggle this way. From what I understand, the problems can appear from nothing, lots of things, a small set of problems that gather pace and grow gradually, or a massive disturbance in their life that affects the people around them too. In all cases adults might not be aware or might be suffering themselves and that makes it understandbly difficult to see what’s happening right under our noses.
The mental health of our children is so important, not just because of the pain and suffering they are enduring today, but because there is a liklihood that mental health strain that remains unresolved is going to lead to ongoing difficulties, from childhood straight to their already stressfull teenage years and on in to adult life.
Helping children to manage their feelings today, right now, will help them in the long run too. Finding healthy, creative and engaging ways of expressing worry, fear and upset is something EVERYONE could benefit from. Teaching children how to cope, that it’s ok not to be ok, how to talk to others, how to get appropriate help and support, will help everyone not just immediately, but in the future too.
Acceptance today, means commonplace tomorrow. If we work hard to help kids understand that struggling with mental health is NORMAL, it can happen to ANYONE and squash any leftover stigma for their generation, the stigma for the next generation should cease to exist. Imagine that, a world where being open about mental health, telling someone you take anti-depressants, discussing your difficulty handling the stress of work or just finding yourself feeling low, would all be completely regular. Run of the mill. Standard.
Considering your mental health whenever you need to, is normal.
Asking for help with your mental health, is normal.
Taking time to manage your mental health appropriately, is normal.
Discovering a mental health problem that’s new to you, is normal.
It;s all normal.
However, I realise the solution and care needed isn’t always easy to see or find. What does difficult mental health look like in a child? Herein lies the problem. Their stress can be misunderstood because it can look like nothing more than a ‘stage of childhood’, ‘personality development’, ‘personality trait’ or ‘development delay or difference’.
I guess I am extra-sensitive to this issue because of the difficulties I watch my daughter struggle with as an SEN child, as well as the reflection of poor mental health I am forced to face every day in the mirror. But the fact is that the pain caused by stress for adults is better understood these days, there’s advice and support available to help us realise the challenges we face and the things we can do to mitigate damage and further difficulty. It’s also simpler to find advice in a crisis and fast, quick tips to help in panic. Whether it’s breathing techniques, distraction methods, creative projects or meditation ideas (amongst many other things) it is pretty simple to find solutions and to start work immediately to see what might help.
Childrens Mental Health tips aren’t as easy to find. Because children often struggle to describe their pain, to tell others their worries or to explain the reasons, it can be incredibly difficult to find the right help. Even worse, the impact of having a child struggling with mental health is likely to impact the mental health of the parent too – so home life in itself becomes strained. Your sanctuary becomes a hotbed of stress, questions, upset and worry.
For that reason alone, it’s essential we all understand how our kids are, what makes them sad, worried or upset and when they feel those things, what we should teach them and what we can do to help. They need an understanding of what steps they should take if they don’t have a trusted adult to talk to. Where can they find ways of becoming calm when stressed? What should they do if they are bullied at school? Who is available to help if they are scared or worried? And most of all they need to understand that it’s ok not to be ok. The trick is making sure that once a young person is able to understand and deploy positive mental health techniques on their own, we are teaching them how to do it. Personally, I want to know that my child understands there is always help, and many ways to self regulate, if you are scared, emotional, worried, stressed, or just feel low.
I realise many children aren’t yet able to help themselves effectively, whether that’s due to age, development, or specific challenges they are living with. That puts the onus on us parents and caregivers to educate ourselves well enough to have a good understanding of the moods and emotions of the children we love. Even more so when there are stressful or unexpected situations arising in their world.
It’s so much better to be prepared.
The knock-on effect, by definition, is that once someone (not just an adolescent) is able to understand the positive steps they can take to improve their mental health, they will have the ability to pass that vital advice on to other people around them.
The love and care will spread and, as I mentioned before, the stigma attached to mental health will gradually disappear.
Personally I can’t wait to live in a world where it’s normal to be weird. Where feeling low doesn’t mean you are ‘just looking for attention’. Where crying with a bottle of wine doesn’t mean you are ‘taking too long to get over a divorce’. Where telling your mates over a pint that you’ve been having sad thoughts, doesn’t make you scared at the prospect of being laughed at.
I can’t wait to live in a world where every human has no hesitation to access help, ANY HELP, for a mental health difficulty.
I don’t think I’ll be alive to see it, but I hope that with the right work, parents and caregivers of the next generation are paving the way to make this a reality.
If you are looking for help or advice on how to help a child with their mental health then Place2Be is the perfect website to start at. They are the ones responsible for Childrens Mental Health Week and they are on a mission to ‘shine a spotlight on the importance of children and young people’s mental health’. Their website has a plethora of information, most useful for us as parents and caregivers is the Parents and Carers Page, where you will find links, tips and information about what we can all do to help our children at any age.
If you are a kid yourself (I’m really pleased to meet you 😊) and you’re looking for help, then Young Minds might be just the place, where you’ll find a young person page to read, with useful guidance, plus places you can call or text for immediate advice. If you want to call or text someone immediately, then Childline offer support to anyone under 19 for any reason. Their number is easy to remember 0800 1111 – it’s the same number I used as a child when I struggled over my parents divorce. I can say from personal memory that their help was invaluable at the time. They also offer email support and councillor chats that can all be accessed through their website using the link above.
Finally, on to the picture attached to this post, which may seem random, but has a genuinely appropriate reason for being drawn. I wanted to ask a child what they’d like to see on this post, and although she has trouble answering questions, eventually my daughter got excited at the idea of mummy creating a drawing with a horse, so I’ve created a depiction of a horse from her favourite show, Spirit Riding Free (Chicalinda), in a style I’m more comfortable with (kawaii-ish) and I’ve woven some useful information for children in too. I hope you like it and its purpose.
In the meantime, if you would like to read the short story written by me that obtained the first selected kudos, then it’s below for you to have a read. It’ll only take a couple of minutes. Please note, although it’s short, it does talk about difficult situations for children, parents and mental health. And just to be clear, I’m not trying to say these events and actions are common, the point is that these situations exist and we should all be more aware of them. Even an amicable and ‘happy divorce’ can lead to a child having difficulty adjusting, so it’s good to be aware, if nothing else.
Confirmation of my place in the competition can be seen on their website, and as always, thank you to Secret Attic for my latest portion of writing positivity!
****TRIGGER WARNING**** SELF HARM
The Burning Question
“Help me. Is it normal?”
“He smashed plates, ripped curtains, thrashed about, and then he stomped off. correct?”
“Hannah, he’s 9. His Dad just left. He’s confused. You’re incredible parents despite the divorce. Stop punishing yourself.”
“If I only had fabric and crockery to worry about, I’d be a happier woman. You’re doing great.”
Hannah’s phone rang. Charlie’s school.
“Mrs Jenkins, can you come in urgently please?”
“I’ll be there in 10 minutes. What’s happened?”
“We’ll explain shortly.”
“Thank you for coming in so quickly.” Charlie’s headteacher was stern. Hannah was uneasy.
“We caught Charlie burning himself with a cigarette lighter. We understand he’s experiencing changes at home. He needs appropriate support”
With increasing daze, Hannah hastily agreed to everything supportive, rushed Charlie to hospital and got him safely home.
After the bandages, the questions, and the routine bedtime story, Hannah was left with nothing but silence to contemplate her increasing worries.
She unscrewed some cheap plonk and poured a glass.
The wine and Charlie’s weapon of choice stared back at her.
She drank until she forgot.
Charlie bounced onto Hannah’s bed. His morning hugs were her bliss.
“Can we go to the park?”
“Absolutely we can! But listen, Charlie, you must promise you’ll never hurt yourself again. You can always talk to me.”
“Sorry, Mum. Hugo laughed when I cried about Dad leaving. I was angry. I didn’t mean to make you cry too.”
He squeezed her tightly, inadvertently igniting the pain she’d forgotten.
“Did I hurt you, Mum?”
“Of course not! Go and play. I’ll be right there.”
Hannah watched him bound away before carefully removing her sleeve.
Her arm smouldered. Blood had stained her sheets.
She’d punished herself for Charlie’s sadness. She felt she deserved it.