If we are going to give our children the language of emotion, and the space to use it, then we must also make sure we kit them up with appropriate resilience tools, and an understanding of how emotions work, rather than just words that seem to fit the bill.
It’s a bright and early summer’s evening. We’re walking back from rounders and three-legged races, through the monied, tree-lined streets where these girls live. They are my Guides. I am not their leader as such. They lead me, I reckon. And right now they could not feel safer gaggling down these avenues of townhouses with Audis on the driveways.
Jessica is blonde and bouncy and barely 10 years old. She knows many of the older Guides through school, so she’s confident and she already feels at home, despite only joining our unit recently. She skips. She joins me for a few blocks and chatters quickly and happily as we make our way back to the church hall. Then, all of a sudden, she proffers a new line of conversation, away from Snapchat and school hockey teams.
She points to one of the red-brick townhouses. “That’s where my psychiatrist works.”
My ears prick up. “Your psychiatrist?”
“Yep. I have anxiety so I go see a psychiatrist and that’s where she works.”
Jessica is barely 10.
“And what does anxiety mean for you?” I ask, “If you’re comfortable telling me?”
“Oh, I’m fine. I just get nervous and anxious when I go into new situations. I went to a sleepover and cried for my mum, so now I see a psychiatrist for anxiety.”
“Thank you for sharing that with me. Feeling anxious is normal, you know,” I tell her. “We all get anxious about different things. Does your psychiatrist help you?”
“I’m not sure… but it’s what my mum says I need,” she chirps.
And with that Jessica skips off to the Guides in front of us, chatting about new trainers and Instagram.
This both excites and worries me. I’m not sure what to do, other than to do my best, as I promised when I first became a Guide 18 years ago myself. When I was 10 years old, just like Jessica, I walked arm-linked with only a couple of close pals, whispering in hushed tones like an EastEnders plot line, terrified of disclosing to them that I felt a bit “different”. I didn’t have the right words, and if I dared speak this problem’s name, whatever it was, then the sky might fall in. My brain, and how others might react, was unknown, silent and dangerous.
I’m glad Jessica has the words. I’m pleased she lives in a world where the sky doesn’t fall in if she talks about her mental health. I’m pleased children have been given the language they need.
But I am also concerned. Because Jessica is barely 10 and a potentially normal emotional reaction may have already been clinicalised before its time. I am not in a position to say how badly Jessica’s anxiety affects her. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fear throwing any old uneasy feeling into the “mental health” pot in fact does the opposite of normalising “mental health”.
Instead this runs the risk of difficult feelings being treated as something innately, clinically, wrong with us – when actually they are damn healthy. If we are going to give our children the language of emotion, and the space to use it, then we must also make sure we kit them up with appropriate resilience tools, and an understanding of how emotions work, rather than just words that seem to fit the bill.
We have a responsibility to perfect the balance between normalising mental ill health, while not clinicalising typical emotional ups-and-downs. I love that Jessica could tell me so freely that she has anxiety. But I fear chucking her straight onto a psychiatrist’s couch (which her well-off family can do) could risk greater harm than good. Difficult emotions are not alien – they are part of this rich and risky life we share.
Don’t freak out. We all feel it. And that’s okay. Make sure you tell that to the next kids you work with.