In the last twenty years, we have seen a 40% increase in mental health challenges for children with depression—with anxiety being the most common according to the Mental Illness of Canada, 2015 report. However, treatment comes in many forms and almost always from a third-party source. If you have a child with this challenge, what can you as a parent do besides advocate for your child? Start with compassion.
The reason it is a good place to begin is because compassion enables us to see the real person. The word compassion literally means connecting with someone’s suffering. It is utterly amazing to me how stress and anxiety can literally change a person. I have seen student after student whose behaviour negatively changed when they experienced a large change or trauma in their life or positively change when they experienced love. While we know love isn’t always enough, it certainly goes a long way.
Why does compassion make such a difference? It starts with an understanding of stress and anxiety. We know stress and anxiety is a necessary part of our lives. Stress motivates us and anxiety keeps us safe. However, too much stress or anxiety will overwhelm us and stop us from thinking clearly. As a result, we lose the ability to problem solve.
Children in particular are more susceptible to this than adults. The number one diagnosis for children today is Generalized Anxiety Disorder, recently surpassing ADHD. Why is that? Anxiety comes from high cortisol levels, a chemical our body produces when presented with a perceived danger. The behaviour typically seen will be fight, flight or freeze. A child may have an angry outburst or temper tantrum, get stubborn, say mean things meant to hurt, get physically aggressive or cause damage to property. A child may also avoid, deny, always say everything is fine, constantly try to fix everything or agree with everything, run away, or focus on something. However, the child may also daydream, refuse to do any work, obsess over something, become very quiet, cry, or just stare at something. While these behaviours can be linked to several different sources, the conversation becomes important.
Any person, not just a child, will not naturally think to ask for help when they are overwhelmed with anxiety. However, when we recognize this behaviour as a communication for help, we can literally become a lifesaver.
How do we do that? It starts with compassion. We must first realize children communicate differently than adults due to the difference in brain development. Children are more attuned to reading faces than adults. The first form of communication a baby develops is through reading its mother’s face. Elementary children, in particular, still use facial expression as a primary means of communication with adults and other children. A direct stare that lasts over three seconds is considered to be the most threatening facial expression we have. As a teacher, I am very cognizant of the fact that when I am speaking to a child, I will not tell them to look at me and then proceed to stare and talk. If the child doesn’t want to look at me, I give them that option, but they must respond in some way whether by voice or body language.
The look of compassion has several aspects. It is the head tilting to the right; chin and cheekbones slightly elevated; a lower, quieter deliberate voice; and hold the presence. Holding the presence is such a key point. We simply wait. Don’t move, don’t speak, don’t get distracted, simply communicate “I am here for you.” My light-hearted joke is that I wish I could get through a day without a child crying on me, but when they know you are there for them, that anxiety release is something to behold. What is so cool about compassion, though, is that it actually releases anxiety for both you and the child. A stressed adult creates a stressed child. A calm adult creates a calm child.
So the next time you feel like you are about to get into a shouting match with your child again, stop, take a deep breath, make yourself calm, and focus on how can you help your child through their challenge. When they realize you do still love them no matter what they have done, you are laying the groundwork to be able to truly help them. You will not be disappointed with the results.