Over the past few months I’ve noticed a real change in the issues that parents have been coming for support with, particularly those parents I see privately. There was a time when most of the issues I was asked to support centred around kids who simply wouldn’t do what they were asked or told and kids who were rude or disruptive with their parents or siblings at home. Whether these issues have lessened or whether people are more willing to just put up with it I cannot say but more and more I’m being asked for support for children and young people who are anxious and fearful, children and young people who are finding it difficult to cope with the world they live in from the rough-and-tumble of school to the demands of boisterous siblings or just fear of the outside world and all the people in it.
Parenting children is always a balancing act between encouraging them to be independent and self-reliant and instilling in them a healthy respect and appreciation for the risk. Get it wrong and you may end up with a young person who by the time they are 14 or 15 is sexually active, drinking, smoking and using drugs, has little interest or respect for school and what it might offer and who will fight physically or verbally with anyone who tries to restrict their freedoms. These streetwise kids may feel that managing the difficulties and dangers of their world is what makes them special, doing what other kids may not be doing means they are braver and more grown-up, a leader not a follower in the world. How they got to be this way can be the result of many different experiences but the one thing they have in common is that they do not fully appreciate the potential consequences of the choices they’re making which is alas quite normal for a 14 or 15-year-old.
The other end of the continuum is a young person who finds it difficult to mix with others, shy and retiring or anxious about everybody and everything. A child or young person who constantly thinks about the negative potential consequences in anything, even a car journey can be full of danger as they visualise the car engulfed in flames and a walk to the shops is impossible when even their quiet neighbourhood hides knife wielding hoodies in every dark space. By the time a child reaches 11 or 12 the things they are afraid of tend to alter from the physical to the emotional and social so it is not unusual for a child who was overly afraid of traffic to become terrified of criticism or teasing, or just of getting it wrong in front of others. Fear of social inadequacy or mockery can take many different forms from school refusing to obsessive computer use or gaming, even obsessive study. The child who spends every lunchtime at school tucked away in the library working or researching may well be academically driven but they may also be avoiding as much social interaction as possible
It is not always easy to help a child or young person differentiate between risks that cause intensely painful feelings in the here and now and those that can impact on their life for ever. As I write I’m remembering a 14-year-old girl I met some time ago who was reflecting on why she had become pregnant after sex with a relative stranger whose name she did not even recall. When I asked her why she had not used a condom she looked at me open eyed and said “God that would have been so embarrassing!”
it is one of the key jobs of the parent to keep their child safe and this means keeping them close, restricting the choices and decisions they get to make for themselves until they can demonstrate the maturity of behaviour to be given more freedom. It also means teaching them how to manage the world they find themselves in and people they meet rather than trying to cushion them from all the blows and knocks that social interaction involves.
It might be hard to convince the 12-year-old boy who is regularly eating his lunch locked in a toilet stall that it doesn’t matter what other people think of him when he sits down in the dining hall because to him it matters enormously and if there is a way that he has found to avoid that hurt then he will take it.
Part of the role of a parent is to take a child’s fears and anxieties as they grow and put them into perspective for their child. Not listening or ridiculing their worries can alienate them from you but dwelling on their anxieties and rushing to their aid can make small things take over the world. How many children learn that they get the full attention of their parent/s when they relate how unfair others have been to them today? Or how difficult they are finding life? It may be during adolescence that the difficulties materialise but the ground work is put in place from a very early age. I’ve never met her parent yet who wants their child to be over anxious but I have seen first-hand how the parents fears get transferred to their child. Many years ago I had a friend who had experienced a violent attack which left her terrified of being out, even with others, after dark. At 5 her daughter was a confident child, bright and chirpy-the sort of little girl who chats about everything to everyone. By the time she was 7 she was terrified of being out of doors after dark which was difficult in the winter time when even a slight delay after school meant darkness, and by the time she was 8 she was terrified of anyone she did not know speaking to her or getting physically close to her. On a lesser note my sister has a phobia about wasps, which has lessened considerably over the years as her children have grown up, but when they were small she was overwrought and unable to stay still in the presence of a wasp and her little daughters would tease her about her fear. Now my very sensible grown-up niece is unable to eat out of doors in summer because of her own terror (against all reason as she is well aware) of wasps whilst her mother is pretty much fine!