Sitting in a Feb. 28 Ellsworth Community School District meeting for parents, listening to a panel of professionals talk about mental illness in children, was like watching a movie of my past, except my parents weren't invited.
A panel of three professionals: Dr. Renee Van Nocker, therapist at Marriage and Family Health Services; Dr. Amber Morgan, a pediatrician from River Falls; and Dr. John Klem, program director and associate professor in rehabilitation and counseling at UW-Stout answered questions about children's mental health conditions. This meeting was led by school-based mental health coordinator Karli Brozyk. The school district received funds through the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction; their focus was to educate parents and school staff about mental illness in students.
I attended, even though I'm not a parent. The panel of experts explained everything I experienced as a kid. I experienced anxiety at 7 years old. Funny, because that's the exact age they said a child could experience anxiety!
They talked about a child complaining of a stomach ache much too often. That was me too, stomach aches from worrying all the time. What did I worry about? Everything! They explained the definition of anxiety and lo and behold, it is fear.
We all experience anxiety at some point, sometimes more than once a day, but it becomes a problem if it is affecting your everyday life. If anxiety or any other mental condition affects your sleep, eating or socializing, it may be worth visiting a doctor.
Dr. Klem said a parent reacting in a negative manner doesn't help the situation, but only keeps the truth suppressed for a longer period of time. Dr. Van Nocker clearly stated the importance of asking the child questions. Why do you think you feel like this? What do you suppose is bothering you? How does that make you feel?
It dawned on me that I don't recall my parents exhibiting any empathy toward me. What I do recall is my mom yelling most of the time. You know what, I yell too. Kids learn from their parents' behavior, good and bad, manners, etiquette, tone of voice, positive, negative, etc. The impact adults have on youth is enormous. It's really all they have and what they start out with. There's learned behavior, plus mental illnesses are caused by a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors. I say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
The doctors suggested using a "5-minute time" when the child can voice all their worries. If worries are voiced outside of this timeframe, then the child is reminded, "No, it's outside of the worry timeframe." Eventually, the lesson is to teach the child that a previous worry isn't worth considering anymore. I think I will use this for myself.
I can't blame my parents for not knowing what to do because they didn't know what they didn't know. I remember my mom asking " What are you afraid of?" I knew that somehow this was more than worrying about, say, a haunted house. I remember telling her about people running stop signs and not following laws. I also remember her response was "People do that now!" Yes, well I was worried and couldn't explain it very well.
A lady in front of me described the idea of being a perfectionist. Being a perfectionist used to be viewed positively; turns out it can be negative. Fast forward 40 years, perfection doesn't exist. It's an internal fantasy of success.
Do you know the feeling as a kid when your parents are talking about you? That feeling of pleasure, pride and fame all wrapped into one? That was the same feeling I had while sitting in the audience. I felt like those doctors were describing me to my parents. I wish that was the truth. I wondered if the parents around me knew how fortunate they were to have this knowledge?
I felt bad for one parent who was concerned about her daughter not sleeping. She had tried talking to her daughter with little success. The professionals suggested altering the child's thinking by doing something such as doodling and talking at the same time, when the response is "I don't know."
Either the child doesn't want to say or doesn't know how to explain what is happening, Dr. Van Nocker said. Drawing can be really helpful. When my parents divorced, I was made to go to a therapist. The lady had me draw a picture of my family. I don't remember the exact setup, but the people I drew did not have eyes. When this was pointed out, I was almost embarrassed, how could I forget such a basic feature? The therapist explained that maybe I didn't want to see what was happening to my family. Fair enough. That was probably right. It was a horrible time in my life and the worst was yet to come. In Wisconsin in 1982, a 14-year-old could decide which parent with which to live. What a joke. I went back and forth with my decision. I finally chose to live with dad, so I could finish my high school years as a champion softball player.
I always felt like I was hiding something, but had no idea what it was. It wasn't until I was 45 that my childhood made sense. Anxiety is fear. I feared my security. Even at age 7, I could feel the tension between my parents. I could feel the fear of losing the house in which I lived. In my teens, I learned to cling to friends because I must have thought that I may not always have my parents. My anxiety was really bad when I was 7, when I was 14, and in my 20s. It never goes away. I learned to cope with it, some days more than others.
I was in that audience, just nodding my head. I could so relate to what those doctors were saying and wished my parents had that same opportunity. I hope the mom with the daughter that isn't sleeping can ask the right questions. I hope the lady in the front row with the son who is more than a handful can find the strength to find positive ways to release his energy. I hope the parents sitting to my left can find a therapist who can help her child.
A resource for parents is the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) BASICS, a six-week course for parents, guardians and other family who provide care for youth (age 22 or younger) who are experiencing mental health symptoms. To learn more, go to www.nami.org/Find-Support/NAMI-Programs/NAMI-Basics