Friday, 10 November 2017

Children And The Black Dog

I wasn't prepared when the black dog turned up the first time, I didn't even know he existed and he certainly wasn't welcome. But, as he forced his way into my home and flopped onto my sofa, it seemed clear that he wasn't going to be leaving any time soon. I have often wondered what my life would have been like if I had been told about the black dog, if I had been told about mental illness. Would I have coped better? Would it have made a difference? Something happened this morning that made me decide that, whatever happens, my children are going to know about the black dog before he comes knocking...

Like any young family (the kids are young I am not anymore) school mornings are a bizarre mixture of routine, laughter, sibling angst and running by the clock. By the time I am back at the house with a coffee on I sigh and relish the sudden quietness. It's like that every morning and sometimes, like every single family in the country, it tips over into argument. The worst consequence that can be inflicted upon my 8 year old is immediate cessation of scootering rights, whilst the awkward hurt silence on the car ride to my, nearly teenagers, school is only interrupted by a "bye dad" flung over a shoulder as he flumps off to start his day. What always amazes me is that they both have this knack of completely forgetting the upset of the morning and so, by the time end of school is upon us, they are blissfully unaware of the pain they have inflicted. I have learnt to choose my battles and, sometimes, I choose them wisely but the morning school prep melee is never especially high on my list. Except this morning, something happened which needed more that a FIFA 18 ban and this morning I realised that I had neglected something that I really shouldn't have.

It all started with a pack of yogurt drinks which had been designed to be 1 carton short of the required amount for 2 school lunches rations. So, I blame the manufacturers of Frubes but also my 12 year old's inability to close a packet of Rich Tea properly. It went like this:

We realised that there would be one yogurt short by Friday but it was OK as my 12 year old was going to let his younger brother have it. I smiled at the glimpse of brotherly sacrifice, he has a wonderfully loving and caring side which he attempts to cover up with typical 12 year old bravado and attitude. When it came to Friday though, he had forgotten and I casually reminded him of his promise, he agreed and opted for a couple of Rich Tea biscuits (which he doesn't really like but the week before pay day is always an 'if we have it in that's your choice' kinda thing) His face screwed up with revulsion as he realised that the biscuits were soft and he would have to opt for fruit instead. I reminded him of the many times I had talked about stopping the air from getting to things and was rewarded with an angry grunt (Elvis would be proud of the curled lip) My new way of dealing with rudeness and to prevent myself from losing my temper is to disengage early and so, after offering a number of other choices and receiving a Kevin The Teenager sized strop I resorted to silence. This morning I succeeded,  where so often I had failed, and stopped answering which just seemed to annoy him more. It was about this point that he turned around and said "you have mental health issues" It floored me! It is quite possible that he has heard me talk about depression as I have never hidden my problems from the rest of the family. Of course, there are some aspects that I don't wish them to be exposed to but I have made no secret of the fact that I am very sad sometimes. He may have heard the phrase mental health issues before but this wasn't a question or a discussion. He used it in a derogatory sense and it hurt me, I didn't know how to react. If I overreact then wouldn't I be just adding to the stigma attached to mental illness, it needed a thoughtful response and one that would ensure that he understood why what he said was not OK. What I have not done is educate my children about mental illness and the very real possibility that they will experience it at some point. My feelings of hurt turned to sadness but of a familiar feeling of inadequacy as parent, as a Father. This parenting thing is tough and doesn't come with a manual but children need to be prepared for life and that means we need to talk seriously about mental health and how they can tell the difference between stress and Depression. Don't know if I am qualified and I am certain that I don't recognise the difference much less cope well. How do I do this?

1 in 10 of our children will suffer some level of mental illness and over 70% of them wont have received an appropriate level of intervention. Intervention! I hate that word, for me it conjures up images of white padded walls and mental agony, dulled only by the chemical comfort of Lorazepam. But interaction can mean education, it can mean an open door policy to mental illness and certainly means a destigmatising of discussions around mental illness. However open I intend to be I don't intend to talk about suicide and I believe there are certain elements that need to be withheld, unless they become relevant. Surely, I risk damaging my children in their most formative years if I don't show a level of age appropriateness? The conversation I had with my son when he was 6 about the death of his mum was different to how we discuss it now. He needed to know that she wasn't coming back but he needed reassurance that it wasn't his fault or as a result of his actions. I see no point in discussing self harming with a 12 year old who made a flippant comment. Yet, he needs to realise that mental health issues are not a laughing matter and they are certainly not the sort of thing that you use to insult people with. I have brought my sons up to respect others and alternative opinions, yes to challenge but to do so with the understanding that people have a right to disagree. They don't judge people by the colour of their skin or the religion that they follow, they see people as individuals and not as part of stereotyped clique. So, to refer to someone as having mental health issues is as disrespectful as to demean someone because of gender or ethnicity. They need to understand that, just because they don't see outward damage and pain it doesn't mean it isn't there and that, much like the emotional torment caused by bullying, mental illness is unseen and yet those that suffer scream silently.

I think it is also important that they understand how prevalent mental illness is and that, no matter, how "sorted" someone seems to be, they can be suffering with the sort of challenges that mean they rarely are without the company of the black dog. You see, I don't believe that my canine friend is any respecter of size and I don't think he comes in a puppy format for children. If he is terrifying to me can you imagine how nightmarish he must seem to a child? When I was about 9 I was chased onto a school bus by an Alsatian who had slipped out of my neighbours door. In reality it was unlikely he was going to do anything more dangerous than slobber me to death and he probably took my running away as a game. But to me, he was a demonic hell hound who wanted to swallow me whole and such is the case with the black dog. I owe it to my kids to start a dialogue about his existence even if it is just that, kids there is this dog and he isn't like our loving family pet! I want my children to be able to talk to me about anything and to bring to me their deepest and darkest fears. I need to make myself vulnerable to them and to show them my coping strategies for taming the dog. I need to show them that sometimes I don't work well and sometimes i snap at them, not in anger, but because I hurt. Sometimes i need space but more often than not I need a cuddle, a smile or a squeeze of my hand. I cant stop the black dog from knocking on their door but I can warn them that he exists and I can tell them that, if he does, they can come to me for dog training advice. I am no dog whisperer but I have learnt some tricks that work. Perhaps I need to thank the manufacturers of Frubes and perhaps by talking early about mental illness with my children they will be more prepared. It isn't just about my mental health it has to be about family mental health and how we can support each other!

Check out Young Minds for some really helpful information and support 

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