Must be hard being eight. Not speaking so much from my own experience (I have enough trouble remembering what I did at the weekend, let alone three and a half decades ago) but from the recent goings on in my daughter’s world…
Your best friend gets angry with you for not letting her use your favourite scented pen.
Everyone is better than you at football, swimming, ice-skating and EVERYTHING.
Your mum won’t let you watch Rogue One because she thinks it might be too scary for you, but you know it won’t be.
But The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe definitely WAS scary. And sometimes you can’t get to sleep at night because of it.
Also, your parents don’t love each other any more and you don’t understand why.
And you worry whether your mum is ok on her own.
Your dad goes away for work to the other side of the world and you worry about what would happen if he never came back.
There’s stuff on the radio about bombs and people dying.
What if that happened here?
Also, you think you might be fat.
On top of all that you keep overhearing conversations about this guy whose name makes him sound like a character from Captain Underpants but who is now President of America. It’s confusing.
For some reason you start getting tummy aches and feeling sick, then you worry about getting tummy aches and being sick.
When I start putting myself in my eight year old’s shoes, I get why she’s anxious. There’s a lot going on for a little one to deal with – although in fact, she’s not so little any more. She’s left pure innocence well behind and she’s smashed into the ‘age of reason’ – the term used in psychology for when children start to be able to have a more complex understanding of life and the world around them: that people do sometimes go away and never come back and people do stop loving each other and well, life is sometimes a bit shit.
Along with that comes what I call the ‘age of embarrassment’ – the rather sad side-effect of becoming more self-aware where you start worrying more about what people think of you (unfortunately hard for the parent too as we have to get used to the demotion from uncontested world’s best grown-up to constant source of potential embarrassment).
Dealing with your child’s problems becomes hard in a whole different way at this stage, partly because you might not really know what the hell the problem is, which can make us feel a bit helpless as parents. And you have to accept that actually these problems might be not for YOU to deal with, you might just have to be there for them and facilitate your child dealing with them as best they can.
Recently there’s been a whole lot of anxiety in our house, expressing itself in various forms: panic attacks, tummy aches, not wanting to go to school, not wanting to go anywhere new or do anything even vaguely outside of the comfort zone. I think it’s to do with things still changing in our family situation, which has meant less of a safe, comfortable routine, less time at home and consequently a loss of security. I guess this is part of the deal with any separation or divorce and I’m realising more and more that just because we’re two years down the line, that definitely doesn’t mean we’re in the clear.
So what helps? No one size fits all of course but for me it’s helpful to keep coming back to these little nuggets:
- Reassure, reassure, reassure. It doesn’t have to be with words. It might be about themselves, their place in the world, friendships. Let them know they’re loved, they’re needed, they’re good enough just as they are. It may also be that they’re worried about you: when families separate, the children may feel a burden of responsibility towards the parent who is alone, or the parent who has had to leave the family home. We definitely have some of that going on, so I reassure them that their dad and I are ok too.
- Remember they’re not doing it out of choice. It’s a physical reaction to stressful situation. So easy to get frustrated when they’re playing up, being overly dramatic, pretending to be ill, refusing to leave the house or whatever it is. When things get heated, I try and take myself back to awareness of the root of what’s going on.
- Explain the physicality of stress and anxiety – it’s a normal reaction to life, it’s part of life and once they understand that, it at least eases the stress of feeling anxious. I recently read an excellent piece about this and did then talk to my kids about what’s happening in their bodies when they feel nauseous, feel their hearts racing or have tummy aches – it’s their bodies doing a great job of trying to protect them from a perceived danger with the fight or flight reflex. Before I read this I would have thought this was too much to try and explain to them, but it wasn’t at all. It really did help.
- Talk about the big wide world, the good stuff and the bad. They’re going to hear it on the news anyway. Talk about the positive things you can do to make things better.
- Be calm and consistent. Maybe the most important in all of this. For your kids to feel secure, they need boundaries, and they need you to stick to them, calmly but firmly. I love the way a friend recently described this, he said he visualises himself standing strong like a tree, a huge, ancient, wise oak tree with very deep roots. He channels the tree’s quiet power when the kids are pushing his buttons to push those boundaries, he stands firm and doesn’t react to the drama around him. It’s not easy but when you manage it, it works.
Life is complicated, whether you’re eight, or a hundred and eight (or forty-two). It can be really hard dealing with this stuff – ongoing process, onwards and upwards. And if all else fails, be a tree.