Letting Them Feel The Fears

One of the things I’m coming to learn as a relatively new parent is that the rules around things I can control in my world are completely thrown up in the air when it comes to the children.  I can enable strategies in my own life to help, fix, change or at least just manage the things I find difficult.   But when it comes to the kids’ lives, this just doesn’t work and if I’m honest, I’m not sure it should.   I’m learning that I’m going to feel, more and more, the discomfort and almost fearful feelings about situations when they are entering difficult times and I cannot make it better.   This realisation is not new.  It’s been approaching like a slow train for a while, but today it became magnified.   I took my daughter to a gymnastics class.  She has been talking ever since the Olympics was on TV, about wanting to ‘do gymnastics like Dora the Explorer.’   My husband and I discussed it and waited before we did anything, just to make sure it wasn’t a passing wish one week that may change the next.  Before gymnastics, she wanted to dance, and as my daughter is still little, she is enjoying a constant stream of refreshing new ideas she wants to try out each day.  But this one held.

So, after a few weeks of her talking about gymnastics, I found a centre nearby that offers a recreational class for pre-schoolers on a weekend, which you can try out before joining.  As we drove to the session, she was really excited.   She talked about how she was going to tell her cousin all about it when she got home, and her only slight worry was that she absolutely did not want to do handstands.   I said what I always said, that she wouldn’t have to do anything she didn’t want to do.   I’ve always thought that way.  I’m not sure if its right or wrong, but it is how I managed to navigate things in my life when I was a child.  I’ve written before about my shyness and there is a tendency in shy people to turn away from something they fear.   There are people who will tell you that you should always face your fears.  I don’t entirely agree.  I think sometimes there is great bravery in being able to stand up and say that this time, this isn’t for you.

As a child, I hated sport with a passion that consumed me.  The marks on the timetable that indicated PE lessons were happening would fill me with dread.  I would pray they would come and go quickly.    I remember vividly, one day of rainy, indoor PE when we were told to play ‘Obstacle Rounders’.  Part of this horrific game involved jumping from a spring board, which wasn’t in any way springy, up and over a stupidly high bar.   Picture yourself being the awkward kid at the back of the queue as this gets closer.   That was me and all I could do as I reached the front of the line was think about how I just had to refuse to do it.   There was no other way.   I could hear my voice shaking.  I could see my peers looking at me.   And all I could feel was fear.     I was lucky that day to have a teacher who accepted my resolve and let me do something different.  But I never forgot it.  And I don’t believe ‘facing it’ would have had any positive effect.

So, I know I carry some baggage from my own experience when it comes to sport as a child and I knew that I needed to put all of that in a box so that it wouldn’t affect my daughter’s experience.   She’s not me and her experiences are not mine.   When they told me at the class that grown-ups couldn’t go in and that I had to wait in a separate viewing area, I waved her off and trundled upstairs.  Admittedly, I was a little nervous that it may be a ‘grown up’ thing too far for her but I didn’t want to project my fears onto her.  When she came out into the main hall with the rest of the class and sat in a big circle, I did feel excited for her.   The staff seemed nice and welcoming and the atmosphere seemed happy.   And when she started rubbing her eyes, I thought she was tired from the broken sleep she’d had the night before.   But then I realised she wasn’t tired, she was crying.   The kind gym coaches brought her to me and I fully respected her decision when she said she didn’t want to stay, and, later on in the car, that she didn’t want to go again.

When I thought about the experience afterwards, I felt so sad for her, that she had that horrible moment of fear when she found herself in that unfamiliar place and she couldn’t see me.   But I also felt proud at how brave she was.  I told her this, that she was so brave to have walked into that big room by herself and sat down with the other children, not knowing what was coming up and having never done it before.  That took guts.  And it took guts to say that it wasn’t for her.  I know it’s important that she learns to feel those horrible feelings and to find her own ways to manage them with our support.    I want my children to know their own minds as they grow up.  I want them to know they will be listened to if they say they do or do not want to do something and most importantly I want them to know they have a voice.


Fresh From the University Reunion

I found myself trying to explain the concept of university to my five-year old daughter the other day.  As conversations go, it wasn’t as random as considering why farts make a funny noise in the bath, whether spiders really do have friends, or why that lady over there is wearing a blue dress.  Still, it wasn’t the easiest thing to explain.  We’ve done the ‘Big School’ conversations, because she started there this term, and we did the ‘Grown Up School’ ones too, from when I did a course last year as a mature student.  But explaining undergraduate university was a whole other level of complicated.  Try explaining to a little one that it is the place you might go if you want to, after you’ve finished the bit of learning that you have to do and that it is the bit of learning that may change everything in your world.  For somebody so little, it just doesn’t compute.   My daughter’s response was to tell me that one of her buddies at school goes to university (all of her buddies are five).   Erm, okay, let’s try this discussion again in a few years.
I was trying to explain it to her because I was heading off for my reunion weekend and she was very curious about where I was going and what I would be up to.   I thought it was important that she knew where her Mum was off to, but also I couldn’t contain my own excitement as I was about to step back in time and relive some old memories of awesome drunkenness and debauchery that I had as a late-teen.
I studied for my undergraduate degree at Lincoln University.  I rocked up in 1999, seventeen years ago this month.  My mum and my sister brought me and I couldn’t have been more ready for my student adventure.  Don’t get me wrong, I had a lovely childhood and teenage-hood at home, but I was a shy teenager and I was desperate for some coming-of-age, rite-of-passage scenes to put into the film of my life.   I’m ashamed to say I didn’t even notice that my mum cried when she left me in Lincoln.  I only found that out a few years later.   I imagine I will be completely the same when/if my kids go off to university too.
In a few words, I absolutely bloody loved being at Lincoln.   It was my awakening.   A small university in the East of England that very few people had heard of at the time, it had a tight-knit community of students because there weren’t many of us back then, and it was a gorgeous place to spread my wings, have huge amounts of fun and make lots of mistakes too.
I think about that now and I wonder what the university experience would be like if I was going as a teenager now, or even what it would be like if my children go off in 13 years’ or so time.   The biggest change I think I would feel is the lack of privacy and space to make my mistakes.   Everything seems to play out online and in public now in a way it never did in 1999.   If we wanted a photograph, we took it with disposable cameras and then took the film to Boots to get developed and inevitably came back a week later to find ‘advisory’ labels all over the photos.  Now, photos are instantly available but also instantly public.  How can you comfortably get things wrong if the world is watching you?   There is no room to grow in comfort.   How sad that is.   I think so anyway.  But perhaps it is different for today’s teenagers when it is all they know.
If I were going off to university now, would I see myself as much more of a consumer?  Would I want value for money and would I expect more from my lecturers because the fees are high?  Perhaps.  I was in the first cohort of fee-paying students in the country so I suppose none of us felt like consumers really, we just wanted to learn and earn our degrees.
And if I could give any advice to students now or to my children in the future, as they are about to go off and spread their wings, what would it be?  Enjoy it?  Absolutely. Work hard?  Yes, but don’t lose sight of the social importance of university too.  It is what shapes you.        As I sat with my friends at our reunion, we discussed whether we would choose the same degree again and do anything differently.   For me, there is no question that I would do everything exactly as I did.  I sometimes wish I could drop back into that time for a little while and enjoy it all over again.   I hope this year’s cohort of new students around the country have the same richness of experience in their studies and in seventeen years’ time, who knows, maybe they will be fresh from their own reunions.

Depression as a Young Person

Last week saw the release of data from the latest National Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, which showed that the group at the highest risk of mental ill health is young women.  The survey results make for grim reading if you are a woman in the age bracket of 19-24 years of age.  Levels of reported anxiety, depression, self-harm and post-traumatic stress disorder were higher in this group, and whilst the levels amongst men had stabilised since the last survey in 2007, they have increased for woman.

I can’t count myself in that age bracket anymore but when I passed through it I was well and truly in the thick of some pretty horrible anxiety and depression.   My experiences with depression began as a thirteen-year-old girl.  My memories are hazy now but I remember feeling the lowness and despair engulf me and I remember not knowing how to get rid of them.  I remember wishing my teens would hurry up and finish soon, as I thought everything would be fine as soon as I turned eighteen.  I remember there being no public awareness about mental ill health, not like there is now, and although I believe things are much better now, the stigma lingers.

I was fortunate to have parents who understood I needed help and who enabled me to get it.  I can’t even recall telling my mum about how I was feeling.  I must have done; there must have been some series of events leading up to the appointment with my Doctor when I was fifteen, where I was finally diagnosed with clinical depression.    Over the years, my depression was controlled by medication when it became too difficult to lift.  I learned to identify the signs that it might come again.   Routine was and still is my friend.  At university, I became very depressed during my second year.   I ended up trying out counselling but ultimately did not gel with my counsellor and I stopped it and returned to my tablets.   Outwardly, nobody would know I was depressed at university.  I continued to have a fun and active social life but when the low feelings came, they hit me hard and although I never recognised it at the time, the lack of any kind of structure was significant.  I slept a lot during the day, I went out most of the night.  Even now, if I’m tired and anybody suggests an afternoon nap, I will never do it.  I cannot sleep during the day for fear it will unsettle me too much.

Since graduating 14 years ago, I’ve had a few pretty big incidents of depression but it feels like they are becoming kinder as I get older.  They anchor themselves to big events, rather than hitting me at random, as they did when I was younger.   When I had my first child, although I should have been prepared for Post-Natal Depression, I hadn’t even given it a thought until it hit me in the days after the birth.  My health team put it down to ‘Baby Blues’ and left me to it.  It was only when I called out the emergency Doctor one Sunday evening and told him in a very matter-of-fact way that I was experiencing very familiar and horrible symptoms of depression, that he believed me and arranged immediate treatment.   When I became pregnant again, my health team were pretty much all over me and my mental health from the get-go, and in the event I didn’t experience PND again.

So I have my own experience of depression and I fully expect it will keep returning throughout my life.  I’m okay with that. I’ve learnt to sniff out when it’s coming.  I’ve learnt some things I can do to help to try to keep it at bay, and I’ve learnt what to do when it does come.  I’m fortunate that I have supportive family and friends around me who try to understand and I’m fortunate I have a pretty strong routine and structure now.     What I do think about though is the legacy of my mental health for my children.  Mental ill health runs in my family so it is little surprise it touched me too.  And I am braced for the possibility it may happen to one or both of my children.  And though it was not a pleasant experience for me growing up, I have to admit I feel for them and for all young people who experience this, because they have to experience it in the world we live in today.  It feels very much like children and young people have to grow up in a goldfish bowl now.  There is very little privacy for them in terms of their lives being played out online and on social media.   Bullying, which was once the preserve of the school playground, now enters children’s homes via their internet connections.  I can’t imagine how horrible that must be.   And the pressures for young women to fit an ideal look and a mould of ‘beautiful’ are ever prevalent.   How can we expect our young women to keep it together when we throw all of this at them?

I hope that the awareness of mental ill health and the importance of positive mental health keeps on growing.  I hope they stay in the collective consciousness and I hope that one day the stigma disappears.  I hope that the world my children grow up in is much more accepting of difference, and a much more supportive place.  All of these things I hope, but with a heavy heart I don’t allow myself to believe they will come true unless we start to take much more care with the emotional well-being of our young people.



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