Opinion piece by Mandy Nolan - Why are my kids so worried?
“Why are my beautiful kids SO worried? Is it me? My first port of call is to blame myself. With three different fathers to my four kids, it’s clear that I am the common denominator. Damn! I really wanted to blame their fathers.”
My four kids all have various presentations of anxiety. My eldest has been diagnosed with ‘profound anxiety’. It started in her early teens, accompanying an eating disorder, and it has persisted into her twenties without any sign of releasing its grip. She struggles to like herself. She has little resilience, and things that others might brush over hurt her deeply. Another kid has OCD and anxiety. This is episodic. Another has depression and anxiety, which is milder in comparison, but there’s still a shadow that lurks on some of her brightest days. The other day my youngest sat at my kitchen bench and said, “Mum, I feel really sad.” I almost collapsed on the spot.
I said, “No, you can’t. You can’t feel sad.” It was a terrible thing for me to say. But I couldn’t have one more child be swept into this wind tunnel of sadness and lack of self-belief.
It’s heartbreaking to watch your children try to manage a condition that causes them to lose faith in themselves and in the world. That causes them to fear so many things. And avoid many others.
What have I done? Why are my beautiful kids SO worried? Is it me? My first port of call is to blame myself. It feels like it must be my fault. With three different fathers to my four kids, it’s clear that I am the common denominator. Damn! I really wanted to blame their fathers.
And yes, in a sense, it is my fault—well, the fault of my genetics. My family tree is riddled with mental illness. Depression, suicidality, OCD snake from one generation to the next. Of course, they were never diagnosed. My grandfather who didn’t speak for forty years was just called an “arsehole”. My great grandmother who wouldn’t touch door handles or drink from glass in case she swallowed a chunk and died was called “eccentric”. My maternal grandfather underwent numerous rounds of shock therapy and subsequently died prematurely of a heart attack in his early fifties.
They may well have been eccentric or arseholes … but they were mentally ill. It’s only now I realise that generations of unresolved trauma have made their way to my kitchen bench in the eyes of a little girl who tells me she’s sad.
I don’t have anxiety. As a child I did have trauma-related OCD. I grew up in domestic violence, my father died in a car accident when I was six, and at around eight I developed obsessional behaviours and intrusive thinking. This lasted a few years. I told no one. My mother never noticed and by the time I was thirteen I had grown out of the behaviours. I only remembered them when I gave a family history to a psychiatrist for one of my kids. How could I have forgotten this? This happens apparently with some kids—your aberrant brain can just ‘grow out of’ it.
So yes, it’s me. But it feels like it’s more than me. My smart, sensitive kids have been born into a world so different from mine. They are the generation told bedtime tales of climate change with predictions of environmental Armageddon if we don’t cut our emissions. Our governments have been so neglectful in their response I’ve been tempted to report them to DOCS for putting our kids at risk. There’s a reason why kids all around the world have poured into the streets to protest the urgent need for climate change action. They want a future, and right now the older generations are squandering what should be rightfully theirs. It seems logical that a global lack of concern for the future of our kids might affect their self-belief and their confidence in the future. Many kids don’t feel they have one.
Then there’s social media and screens. This generation is the first to be exposed to the constant buzz of media. You see babies holding iPads in their prams while Mummy shops. What does this do to a kid’s brain, exactly? In the quest for quiet, are we rewiring our precious ones’ brains to later experience long-term profound worry, sadness and disconnection?
Anxiety has become commonplace in our kids. Nearly every mother I speak to whispers her despair over how to restore the joy in her frightened kid. Is it an epidemic? Or is this pervasive sense of fear actually a logical reaction to a world that won’t change?