My friends and I remember our childhoods as silly, spontaneous and fun.
We would repeatedly make fools of ourselves and roll around the floor laughing about it afterwards.
It never occurred to us to take life, or ourselves, particularly seriously.
Anxious kids certainly existed in the 1980s, however. Since then the alarm has been raised by parents, educators and doctors because it appears more youngsters are grappling with mental health disorders and they are affecting them at younger ages than ever before.
Perth psychiatrist Kavitha Vijayalakshmi, head of department at the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service, says the number of WA children presenting at emergency wards in the past five years due to self-harm has risen by 400 per cent.
Particularly worrying, she explains, is the significant self-harm once seen in 16- and 17-year-olds is now commonly seen in the 12 to 14 age group.
“We are finding we are getting younger and younger kids with significant self-harm,” Dr Vijayalakshmi explains.
“When I say ‘self-harm’, it is not just one incident. It is the intensity of the self-harm, the thoughts that go with it, the difficulty of managing their emotions around it and the repetitive nature of it.
“We’ve had a couple of seven- and eight-year-olds who have presented in crisis, talking about not wanting to live.
“Sometimes we ask ourselves, what do these children know about life and death to be having this notion in their head that they don’t want to live anymore.
“I think the main thing I want to get out is anxiety is a normal feeling. Developmentally, children will feel anxious; a six-month-old baby will feel anxious if you take the baby away from the mum, and that is OK.
“But there are going to be times when it might become more than the norm and those are the times you need to have certain words within yourself to have that conversation with your child to help them.
“Don’t be too overprotective, don’t help them avoid situations — nor should you dismiss those feelings because those are very valid experiences for children — and then seek help because there is a lot of help around.”
Self-harm means deliberately hurting or injuring oneself, without intending to end one’s own life, usually as an extreme way of trying to cope with distressing or painful feelings.
“At home and at schools are the most important places where we can teach children how to recognise their emotions, how to name them and understand and accept them and to know that an emotion will pass.”
However, it can be physically dangerous and a sign the person needs help for a mental health problem associated with the behaviour. This might be an anxiety disorder or depression.
Given self-harm is linked with depression and anxiety co-exists with depression about 70 per cent of the time, it is important to take self-harm or escalating anxiety seriously and provide appropriate help for the child, according to Telethon Kids Institute researcher and psychologist Dr Monique Robinson.
A GP or psychologist can help. If mild, self-educate to help your child.
“It’s distressing as a parent seeing your child feel better after harming themselves and we’ve got to think of better ways for kids to handle their feelings and emotions than that,” Dr Robinson explains.
Dr Vijayalakshmi adds: “Unfortunately, anxiety doesn’t come alone. We usually say depression, or negative feelings, are twin sisters with anxiety.”
Older children who self-harm might cut, poison or burn themselves but pre-school-age children can be suffering too and require help with gentler ways, such a breathing techniques, to deal with big feelings.
“In young children we don’t call it self-harm, we call it more repetitive behaviour, and head-banging is probably the most common type,” Dr Vijayalakshmi says.
“We know that very young can kids can show other things like pinching themselves or using a pencil or a pen to poke themselves.”
A major survey of Australian youngsters in 2013/14 but published in 2017 revealed 8 per cent of boys and 7 per cent of girls aged six and below meet the medical benchmarks for a generalised anxiety disorder diagnosis.
The Young Minds Matter Survey also found nearly one in seven, or 560,000, Australian 4- to 17-year-olds were assessed as having mental disorders in the previous 12 months and 278,000 had anxiety disorders and 112,000 had major depressive disorder. About one in 10 students had self-harmed.
Interestingly, the children tying themselves in knots with excessive worry are not limited to low socio-economic families who might face the stress of where their next meal will come from, or whether they will find shelter.
“It’s across the board, and it’s just that the problems are different on either side but still causing anxiety,” Dr Vijayalakshmi explains.
Current research shows students with mental disorders are less connected and engaged with their schooling, attend school less often and have poorer academic outcomes than their peers, Dr Robinson says. On average, students with a mental disorder in Year 3 were seven to 11 months behind students with no mental disorder, but by Year 9 students with a mental disorder were on average 1.5 to 2.8 years behind students with no mental disorder.
The reasons so many children appear to be struggling are many and complex, however.
Increased awareness has probably led to more mental health disorder diagnoses but another factor that seems to leap out is our modern lifestyle — particularly social media.
“Young teenagers who are maybe 10 or 11 are so connected to their peers that they are constantly in contact with them, they know what is happening, what their friends think about them and there is constant feedback for them so it can make them more connected but it can also expose them to things which they are not able to cope with at their age,” Dr Vijayalakshmi says.
“For us, it is very difficult at our age to understand the pressures of social media and the immediacy of getting peer feedback and our kids are constantly dealing with that.
“Most of the time what we have seen is the effect of social media on them. We usually find them coming in in crisis because a certain comment has been made and there are a few other people who have joined and sometimes it’s anonymous and they don’t know who has made it or sometimes it is a friend who they thought was a friend.
“I think it’s time for us to ask the question, why aren’t kids learning these strategies to cope and why can’t we teach them other ways of coping with what is happening in their lives, which may be with anxiety, coping with depression, coping with family conflict, coping with difficulties at school so they don’t have to end up requiring that kind of care.
“At home and at schools are the most important places where we can teach children how to recognise their emotions, how to name them and understand and accept them and to know that an emotion will pass.
“Just because you are upset now, just because your friend broke up with you, it doesn’t mean that in two days’ time you are going to be as upset. It will change.
“So how do you take care of yourself in the next two days? You give them someone they can go to, whom they trust, and with whom they can have a chat. That is where we need to do that work. We need to take the time to sit and talk to our children.
“Personally, that is sometimes my worry: why are we coming back and retreading the basics? Maybe we have so much happening in our lives that we do need someone to tell us.”
WHERE TO GET HELP…
lifeline.org.au, 13 11 14
kidshelpline.com.au, 1800 55 1800
headspace.org.au, 1800 650 890
beyondblue.org.au, 1300 22 4636
This piece was first seen on the ‘The West Australian‘, 14 March 2018.