THIS FEATURE WAS WRITTEN BEFORE COVID-19, BUT STILL CONTAINS USEFUL INFO FOR OUR LIVES TODAY
‘The day my son, Jude, then aged eight, came home after a sleepover and told us he’d spent a sleepless night shaking, panicking and feeling as though he was floating above his bed, I was distraught. That night signalled the start of mental health issues that carried on in various forms for about six years. He’d seemed happy until then – despite being a little shy and timid, he had friends and was doing well academically. But, suddenly, he’d turned from being a child who slept really well to being too anxious to go to bed if we were out for the night.
When you become a parent, you don’t imagine that your child will ever experience mental health problems. But, it turns out that it’s becoming – alarmingly – more common. In fact, I found out that one in eight 5- to 19-year-olds has at least one mental disorder. But you’re not powerless as their parent. During the year that followed, I learned that, as well as seeking professional help, it’s important to communicate with your child and really listen to them – they need somewhere to air their fears and be heard.
Jude’s issues with sleepovers escalated. He’d arrive home in a bleak mood, because he’d been awake for most of the night, feeling desperately lonely and scared. In the end, he stopped sleeping anywhere but at home. Ironically, he was more articulate than many boys his age, with a great sense of humour. He was happy to chat to me about his day, but when it came to his fears, he found it difficult to talk, partly because he didn’t want me to worry – which, of course, I did. It helped to choose the right moments to chat, such as when he wasn’t hungry or tired. I’d also encourage him to talk about how he was feeling as part of a light-hearted conversation rather than a series of probing questions. It was important to me that he felt supported and didn’t fear being judged. I wanted him to have a safe place to express himself, where he wouldn’t feel ashamed, be told not to be silly or be persuaded to try a sleepover.
Although communicating helped him to feel heard, when he was around 12, the anxiety developed into a phobia of something terrible happening if he didn’t get to sleep by 9pm. This self-enforced curfew meant that he forfeited everything from school trips to celebratory family dinners. By the time he started secondary school the sleep issue began to set him apart from his peers, as friendships were beginning to develop when boys stayed over at each other’s houses. It was at that point I realised we needed help.
Our GP referred Jude to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services). We knew there’d be a long wait, so I made a couple of private appointments with a counsellor. She gave him relaxation and mindfulness exercises to do before going to bed, which he found very useful (and still uses today). The talking therapy with the psychiatrist at CAMHS was a turning point. She explained that however big his fear, it was better to face it and see what happened. The worst case would be that he’d be tired if he didn’t sleep, rather than the world ending. And incredibly, within a year, the sleep problems became less of an issue. But then he developed social anxiety – he was a lot smaller than other boys his age and he began to feel self-conscious. Luckily, he was so used to opening up about his fears, from the years of talking to me and a therapist, that he was able to share his feelings with the school counsellor.
The therapist also set up weekly sessions for Jude with a sixth-form mentor (a boy who’d also experienced social anxiety at his age). Talking to the older student showed Jude that it was possible to come out the other side. He also gave Jude weekly challenges, such as having a five-minute chat with someone he liked, which seemed to help. By the age of 15, Jude appeared to be more optimistic and upbeat, mixing more easily with friends. He’s 18 now and he recently told me he was grateful that he had me to confide in when he was younger – and he knows he can still talk to me. In some ways, the difficulties he’s experienced growing up have made him a soulful, determined and compassionate young man, who’s willing to talk about his feelings. He’s learned how to overcome obstacles and pursue his dreams – and we couldn’t be more proud of him.’
Statistics suggest that there are over one million children in the UK with a diagnosable mental health condition*. But the good news is that being actively involved in your child’s mental wellbeing could help prevent issues later in life. This is where BBC Children in Need’s A Million & Me programme (supported by partners including Boots) comes in. It aims to support children aged eight to 13 with their emotional wellbeing – through encouraging them to talk openly – as well as supporting family, friends and carers to listen and talk to them.